Reaction to SA’s new draft labelling regulations

New labelling rules propose warnings on food high in sugar, salt or saturated fat – and will require almost all foods to be relabelled.

Draft food labelling laws have been released by the Department of Health that, if passed, will require prominent health warnings on foods that contain high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat, in what the department says is an effort to improve nutrition and reduce lifestyle diseases.

The regulations will require almost all foods to be relabelled, at a high cost to a food industry that is already battling with hard-pressed consumers, intensive load-shedding and soaring input prices.

The food industry and health experts have three months to comment on the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs.

In stark contrast to current labelling laws, the 226-page regulations propose that food with certain levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat must have triangular warnings with an exclamation mark on the front of the item. The warnings, which look like road signs, would say either “high in fat”, “high in salt” or “high in sugar”, and some products may require all three warnings.

The signs need to take up 25% of the front of a package and must be displayed prominently.

Foods that would require large warnings include:

  • Liquids that have sugar equal to or exceeding 5g per 100ml or solid foods with sugar equalling or exceeding 10g per 100g;
  • Solid foods with 400mg of sodium or more;
  • Solid food with 4g of saturated fat or more per 100g; and,
  • Any product with an artificial sweetener.

This means crisps, a lot of processed food, sugary drinks, diet drinks, fatty foods, biscuits, crackers and many prepared meals would need large triangular warnings.

Any such food cannot be advertised to children or marketed using celebrities, cartoon characters or sports stars. Nor can products with warnings be sold with a free toy, be part of a competition or giveaway, or be advertised using images of happy families.

The legislation introduces strict criteria that must be met if claims such as “100% wholegrain”, “gluten-free” or “sugar-free” are made.

Dietitian and food labelling expert Gabi Steenkamp welcomed the clarity for nutritional claims. “This section in particular will require very careful scrutiny. We definitely need a closing of the loopholes and especially the criteria for nutritional claims on food packs.”

Health department spokesperson Foster Mohale told Business Day the aim of the regulations was to ensure consumers had information on the content and nutritional value of food.

“Accurately labelled food products enable consumers to make healthy food choices,” he said. And it could help prevent the onset and progression of lifestyle conditions such as heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

A food industrialist reacts

Food scientist and labelling consultant, Nigel Sunley, says: “Anything that’s driven by the desire to improve consumer education on their food and their diets is, in principle, to be commended. A lot of the diets consumed in this country are very poor.”

But he doubts that warning labels would change behaviour.

“Treating food like tobacco and plastering warnings all over it is very questionable. People like food that tastes good. People like sweet things, salty things, things with fat in them. The focus on hitting people over the head for eating these things is, I think, very questionable.”

Sunley said public health professionals who drew up regulations often do not understand consumers’ purchasing desires and do not comprehend the complex scientific process in creating food. Instead they have a simplistic, naive approach.

Nor can food labels fix the fundamental problem that millions of economically distressed consumers eat what they can afford and what is tasty, he said.

“We all want to put better nutrition into our food. But cheap, tasty food is not always very compatible with good nutrition.”

The regulations replace a draft released in 2014 that was never finalised.

Sunley said that the expensive process frustrated the food industry and professional bodies.

“I think there were over 100 submissions made to the Department of Health in 2014. Everybody ran around like headless chickens for three months to comment on the draft and then we had stony silence for nearly nine years.”

Denying that there was a lack of consultation, Mohale said the regulations were developed after extensive research and consultation with stakeholders, including the industry, and they include guidance from the WHO.

For the Consumer Goods Council of SA, which represents food producers and retailers, Matlou Setati said the council supports efforts to manage non-communicable diseases and obesity by helping consumers to make informed healthy food choices. “However, the implementation of the regulations will come at an additional cost.”

Many industry experts declined to reply to Business Day questions as they were still studying the draft.

The draft regulations include several other proposals:

• All packaged foods need to be assessed by nutrient profiling, which is a scientific method of classifying the composition according to a predefined model. This process could be costly for smaller food companies.

•  Bottles or tubs of blended olive oil cannot be illustrated with olives unless olive oil is the main ingredient.

•  Health claims are limited to a number of phrases. One example is: “Vitamin C contributes to iron absorption from foodstuffs.”

•  A product with less than 25% meat cannot have the word “meat” in the product name and description.

•  The words “wholesome” and “nutritious”, which are already banned from food adverts, remain banned, with the words “nutraceutical”, “superfood”, “smart” and “intelligent” now prohibited.


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