There is concern among suppliers and retailers that they might be open to possible charges of noncompliance, as a result of uncertainty over the interpretation of the new meat-labelling regulations.
South Africa’s meat-labelling regulations came into effect in May and specify what information needs to go onto the packaging of meat products.
Law firm Spoor & Fisher partner Herman Blignaut says consumers are also not fully aware of the regulations and what they mean, as their publication was not accompanied by a well-run public education campaign. Consumers are subsequently not aware of their rights and how to enforce them when labelling does not meet the requirements of the regulations – which disregards an important part of the compliance factor of the new regulations.
Noncompliance can be costly for companies. The National Consumer Commission (NCC) can impose hefty penalties and fines on defaulters. Blignaut adds that a company can be fined up to 10% of its yearly turnover, or R1-million, depending on which one is greater. The NCC aims to conduct more compliance inspections.
Necessity of Meat Labelling
The meat-labelling regulations stipulate that businesses involved in the packaging of processed and dried meat products must include on the labels the following information – the name, quantity, measure, weight or gauge of the products; the name of the producer; the ingredients in or the material from which the products have been made, including a plain language description of the animals from which any particles, portions or constituents of meat were derived; and the mode of manufacturing.
The necessity of the regulations became more urgent after a Stellenbosch University study in early 2013 revealed that some meat products in supermarkets were not correctly labelled. Even though it was later discovered that the problem could have been caused by cross-contamination – where the meat product contains more than one animal species – it was felt that the regulations were long overdue.
Although the regulations require that as much detail as possible be given on the contents of processed and dried meat products, industry and retailers often struggle with using the correct technical language to describe the animal products that have been used.
Another issue, which often creates confusion for suppliers and retailers, is that the regulations are not clear on how much of an animal species a product has to contain before it has to be included in the labelling.
“. . . South Africa follows the UK and European Union practice, which allows that an international threshold, comprising 1% of the meat product, be undeclared to allow for cross-contamination. However, the new meat-labelling regulations are silent on the 1% threshold issue and, as such, it is unclear as to whether they acknowledge the practice,” explains Blignaut.
Further, despite retailers not being fully responsible for supplier labelling on products, they can still be fined if the products they sell contravene the regulations.
However, Blignaut feels that it is generally accepted that retailers should be familiar with the rules and regulations that pertain to foodstuffs. “It is their responsibility to raise the issues pertaining to compliance and the new meat-labelling regulations with suppliers to avoid any risk or liability, owing to possible noncompliance. The risk of retailers being fined serves as a measure to increase compliance with the regulations and, ultimately, to benefit consumers.”
Compliance with such regulations usually requires that money be spent and, while larger companies usually do not have a problem with managing this, the smaller ones tend to struggle, as they do not have enough capital.
Blignaut tells Engineering News that it is not surprising that the NCC is unable to assume a broader responsibility in educating the public on the meat-labelling regulations, as the commission does not have resources to embark on such public awareness campaigns.
“The meat-labelling regulations were promulgated by virtue of the empowering provisions of the Consumer Protection Act. Therefore, it is unfortunate that the commission does not appear to have conducted any campaigns on educating the consumers on the new regulations.”
Blignaut further states that the responsibility of educating the public seems to have fallen on the private sector – suppliers and retailers – ¬who hold seminars and publish articles about consumer rights and how to enforce them.
Consumers are encouraged to be involved in the process and not accept treatment and practices that could put their lives in danger. They are further encouraged to bring inadequately or incorrectly labelled meat products to the attention of the relevant supplier or retailer. If a satisfactory response is not obtained, consumers can refer the matter to the NCC for further investigation.