THE food and beverage sector is bracing itself for the massive cost implications that are expected to arise from the new food labelling laws proposed by the department of Health.
The anticipated costs would come hard on the heels of numerous economic challenges facing the sector, as well as issues relating to loadshedding, and in a country buckling under the strain of high food prices and unemployment.
The department earlier this year gazetted a draft document for public comment, which aims to make sweeping changes to the labelling of food items in stores around South Africa. The proposed changes contained in the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs reinforce numerous existing rules on product packaging, such as ingredient lists and sell-by dates, but add a range of changes, including specific front of pack labels for foods with certain ingredients or nutrient levels, along with visible logos and restrictions on marketing content.
Food items that are high in sugar, salt, saturated fat and artificial sweeteners will need to carry warning labels. Additionally health claims will be subject to detailed provisions. The document was open for public comment until 21 July.
Cost implications ill-considered
Gabrielle Stevens, a registered dietician and consultant for FACTS (Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services – www.FACTSSA.com), which offers consulting services to key players in the food industry, as well as regulators highlighted that while the draft regulation has the intention of addressing South Africa’s rise in obesity and chronic diseases of the lifestyle, which is an important outcome, the impact on food industry cannot be overlooked, and the primary focus of the affect off these changes to the consumer both in cost and understanding of labels must be considered. (https://www.factssa.com/news/draft-labelling-regulations-R-3337-most-significant-proposed-changes/)
“The cost implication of changing labels at a time where the food industry is already under immense pressure financially due to potentially reduced capacity to manufacture or increased costs for running generators is a concern to the sector”. She added the regulations could drive multinational companies out of South Africa. “We are already seeing resistance to this draft from some of the multinationals we work with.”
“Importantly, a number of aspects of the draft regulation require nutritional information as a minimum mandatory requirement. Our current legislation does not require this on all product labels. Additionally, all product labels have to go through nutrient profiling and all product labels, where applicable, will have to carry front of packaging labelling based on that analysed nutritional information. “This applies to all foodstuffs, except for a small list of exemptions, such as raising agents, and certain culinary herbs and spices.”
Expanding on the financial impact of the regulations, she said: “The first cost that everyone will have to incur is analysing their products if they don’t currently have the analysed nutritional information. The next cost involves the changing of labels based on that information, and due to the fact that many companies print in bulk, they may need to destroy non-compliant labels, which could include already labelled stock.”
“As a practising dietician, a concern is that the over-use of all of these warning labels could potentially result in consumers ignoring them, as we have experienced with the ‘may contain tree nuts’ precautionary statement, where even tree nut allergic people ignore the statement, or we can elicit fear in foods that could be consumed as part of a healthy diet, such as dairy products which have been shown to have protective factors.”
“Ideally a balance needs to be struck where South Africans have access to safe and nutritious food and a price that they can afford with label information they can use to guide their buying behaviours”.
Meanwhile food companies contacted were reluctant to comment, saying they were currently working through the draft legislation with a view to understanding the impact they will have in the sector.
However, a Woolworths spokesperson said: “Food labelling plays a very important role in providing customers with the information required to make informed choices. Legislation evolves based on consumers’ ongoing requirements and expectations. All legislative requirements to change food labels need to be done in a considered and pragmatic manner from a cost implication perspective. The draft labelling regulation is still in the comment phase, and it is therefore premature to conclude the full impact.”