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Is South Africa food insecure or do we have an acute case of food wastage?

Pausing on the cusp of discarding unwanted food, many may hear the wise voice of their parents who once warned them against such actions.

“Before you throw that half-eaten sandwich away, think of all the starving families who struggle to secure a daily meal, possibly while roughing it on the streets.”

Waste not, want not, right?

South Africans are not heeding the call of that well-known English idiom. According to a shocking report, 2017 Food Loss and Waste: Facts and Futures, compiled by the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), a third of all food in the country is not eaten but wasted. Quantified, this equals 10 million tonnes of food annually, a third of the 31 million tonnes of food produced in South Africa every year. Of the wasted foods, 44% comprise fruits and vegetables, 26% are grains, 15% are meats, and the other 13% is made up of roots, tubers and oilseeds. A large proportion of this food wastage occurs both at production and retail levels.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) estimates that a whopping R71.4 billion was lost to inedible food waste in 2013. The figure could be much higher today.

Two years ago, South Africa was ranked 44th of 133 countries when it came to the affordability, availability, quality and safety of food – based on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Global Food Security Index report.

“All of this food wastage occurs while an estimated 12 million South Africans go to bed hungry every night, with scores more facing gross food insecurity, ” says Karl Muller, Operations Manager of the Tiger Brands Foundation.

“Many well-meaning consumers are guilty of this. During their weekly or daily grocery shopping, fruits, vegetables and meat may be bought with the intention of cooking and consuming them. However, their busy lifestyles may get in the way, resulting in the now bruised, wilting, moulding or rotting food being thrown away as it has or is near or has already reached its best-before date.”

Supermarket chains and restaurants have also been found guilty of food waste. Supermarket chains have come under massive fire recently for discarding edible surplus food while a number of restaurant chains are loath to donate all uncooked or unused food supplies to either staff members or others in need.

“What we need in this country is a model which resembles the one currently used in France, where surplus food is provided to the needy instead of being discarded,” says Muller.

In 2016, French grocery stores were legally compelled to give leftover food to charity. Stores that failed to comply would be fined up to 4 500 dollars. Similarly discussions around donating unsold food to charity began in Italy around the same time. Italy’s stance however was to give rubbish collection tax breaks to businesses that took part in this initiative as an incentive.

In South Africa, however, it remains illegal to sell or donate perishable food which has gone beyond its use-by dates, even if the food is still safe for human consumption.

Section 61 of the South African Consumer Protection Act reads: “The producer or importer, distributor or retailer of any goods is liable for any harm caused wholly or partly as a consequence of supplying any unsafe goods, a product failure, defect or hazard in any goods and inadequate instructions or warnings provided to the consumer.”

Apart from France, there are other countries which support surplus food distribution, if the food is found to be edible.

“Perhaps this country needs to re-look the current legislation which regulates the use-by and sell-by dates of food. In a country where millions face gross food insecurity, we appeal to government to amend these laws to allow food manufacturers, distributors and even the ordinary man on the street to donate food to those in need, in good faith, of course,” Muller concluded.

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