While the new Labelling and Adver- tising of Foodstuffs Regulations (GN R146), which came into effect in March, is offering consumers greater awareness, more information and better protection against false advertising on food and beverage products, the labelling of genetically modified (GM) food still seems to be problematic, says Camargue Underwriting Managers director of general liability Simon Colman.
The use of hormones in food products seems to be relatively unregulated, he adds.
Producers are allowed to use hormones in meat products and are under no obligation to disclose this fact. Even when a producer states that a product is organic, there is still a chance the animal that produced the meat or the milk was treated with antibiotics or steroids at some stage.
As long as treatment is stopped ten days before the animal is slaughtered, there is no obligation to disclose this information, Colman explains.
He notes that those in favour of producing hormone-enhanced foods say that growth hormones occur naturally in all humans and animals, while those opposed to the use of hormone-enanced foods argue that hormones, such as steroids, are added hormones that were not produced as a result of natural biological processes in the animal.
“A lot of research has been done on hormone- enhanced foods and, while there seems to be a lot of speculation regarding the possible side effects, big retailers sell milk, which is labelled as not having been treated with hormones,” says Colman.
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a genetically engineered artificial hormone that is extensively used to increase milk production in cows.
According to the Vegetarian Society of South Africa, rBGH increases the possibility of the occurrence of mastisis, a painful inflammatory reaction of a cow’s udder tissue. Its use has, therefore, been banned in many countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan, but not South Africa.
The society also states that while there have been no long-term studies about the effect of rBGH on humans, it has been linked to increased rates of colon, breast and prostate cancer.
“The larger milk packers get farmers to sign affidavits that rBGH has not been used but that seems to be the extent of the controls,” states Colman.
He points out that the disclosure of hormones used in food and milk products could, possibly, in future, be enforced by regulatory authorities, even if alternatives are not available.
“If all meat products contain hormones, there is no point in labelling it as such, as no alternatives are available. However, consumers still need to be informed of hormone use in products to enable them to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to continue eating meat.”
Plant science industry representative CropLife Canada plant biotechnology VP Dr Steven Yarrow said at the 2012 annual general meeting of AfricaBio in Pretoria, that manda- tory labelling was likely to increase costs across the value chain, cause confusion among consumers, and give rise to expensive compliance and enforcement regulatory programmes.
Colman insists, however, that consumers have a right to be adequately informed and educated about the food and beverage products they consume.
Meanwhile, tests randomly conducted by the African Centre for Biosafety earlier this year, showed that four common food products contained genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and were not correctly labelled.
GM foods are derived from GMOs.
Consumer groups are threatening to take legal action against some major food producers for the supply of what they believe are unsafe foods that contain GMOs, says Colman.
“Consumers have the right to choose whether they want to consume foods that have been genetically modified or not, and should be able to trust that food labels will reveal this information,” he adds.
In 2003, South Africa and Brazil joined the US, Argentina, Canada and China as the top six growers of GM crops, The Scientist publication reported in February of that year.
A report issued by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applica- tions showed that South Africa’s GM crop area increased to 2.3-million hectares in the 2011/12 season from 2.2-million hectares in the 2010/11 season.
The land area cultivated for staple maize was 1.9-million hectares, while GM soya beans were produced on 450 000 ha and cotton on 15 000 ha.
“Many questions exist about the long-term effects of GM foods, which is why the Con- sumer Protection Act (CPA) addressed the issue so aggressively,” says Colman.
Europe, however, has a much more aggressive approach towards GM foods. Food or beverage products containing more than 0.9% GMOs have to disclose that. South Africa’s threshold for disclosure is 5%.
Owing to the strict food and beverage regu- lations in Europe and the US, the increase of unregulated products containing GMOs imported into South Africa strengthened the need for new regulations.
“The long-term effects of food containing GMOs are not yet completely established. To have such products flowing through our markets without regulation could be disastrous,” Colman states.
Further, he comments that the regulations pertaining to the food industry provide enough clarity about the generic requirements as stipulated in the CPA and that businesses have no excuse for noncompliance.
“We do not support the notion that the regulations surrounding GMOs are unclear. Our interpretation is that all foods containing more than 5% GMOs need to be labelled as such.”
He adds that, unfortunately, businesses are not always aware of their obligations. Member- ship of industry bodies, such as the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, is recom- mended, as it helps to educate and inform members about new regulations and the implementation thereof.
The National Consumer Commission (NCC) receives about 28 000 complaints a month from consumers and businesses regarding the labelling of food and beverages. Dealing with these matters is estimated to be six months behind schedule, Colman notes.
“Unfortunately, many businesses rely on the backlogs at the NCC to buy time and not comply with labelling regulations.
“In doing so, they face the possible cancellation of contracts by major clients such as food retailers, fines amounting to 10% of a company’s turnover, or 12 months in jail [for the owners or directors] under the CPA, as well as prosecution and forfeiture of stock under the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act.”
The recently promulgated GN R146 regulations fall under the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act.
Camargue adds that another reason for many businesses not complying with the new labelling regulations is the increased cost and the difficulty of marketing products without using words such as nutritious or healthy on food labels.
“Before the implementation of the labelling regulations, consumers were being misled by the catchy advertising slogans on products. Foods stating they were low-fat or sugar-free often proved otherwise,” says Colman.
He adds that many businesses seem to be unaware of their disclosure responsibilities, while others are ignorant of the fact that, according to the provisions of the CPA, a business that is part of the supply chain carries exposure and can be held liable for noncompliance to the regulations.
“Retailers can’t assume that labelling regulations are manufacturer issues only.”
Camargue believes the new labelling regulations will protect customers and ensure they are informed but, because the testing of products can be prohibitively expensive, the reporting of noncompliance with legislation will be the responsibility of the consumer, which is problematic.
Further, the underwriting company notes that businesses with a sustainable approach to food and beverage production are considering ways to turn the new labelling regulations into an advantage over their competitors.
“Larger companies in the retail sector tend to bind their suppliers to contracts that force them to comply with the regulations.”
Meanwhile, Section 24 of the CPA deals with the labelling of products and trade descriptions, such as the name of the producer, the product number, quantity, weight and measurements, as well as stating the obligations imposed on product suppliers.
The section states that the labelling and trade descriptions must not be misleading with regard to the contents or goods attached to the products and trademarks. Labelling must also not be altered, amended, concealed or removed by suppliers, with the intention to mislead customers, says Colman.
In addition, the GN R146 regulations state that labels must accurately depict the country of origin, if imported, the expiry dates, as well as other information that may be prescribed in a specific industry. Producers, suppliers and importers have an obligation to disclose the presence of GM ingredients.
Camargue notes that the aim of introducing the regulations was to prevent manufacturers and retailers from misleading the public, and provide consumers with more information about the nutritional value of food.
The company adds that the previous labelling regulations, R 2034 of 1993, which had been in operation since 1993, were outdated and regulations that specifically targeted the food and beverage industry were needed.
Consumers with health conditions, allergies and those with specific dietary requirements are most vulnerable to food products that do not disclose nutritional information.
“But in the long term, we all need to eat healthy and should be given adequate information to make healthy decisions,” says Colman.
Further, he states that the enforcement of regulations is always an issue owing to the cost and complexity involved.
Colman concludes that the new Companies Act, which came into effect on May 1, 2011, also enables consumers to hold the directors of a company personally liable if injury or financial loss is caused as a result of negligence or recklessness.
“Directors that act recklessly and negligently in relation to food safety can find themselves in hot water under this legislation,” he says.