By Nzama Mbalati and Zukiswa Zimela
It is really difficult to read food labels. What is trans-fat? How is it different from saturated fat? Why is sodium in milligrams instead of grams? Is it good for me?
That is, of course, if you even see the label on the back of the package.
On April 21, 2023, the National Department of Health published R3337, putting forward a draft regulation to introduce front-of-pack labelling in South Africa.
The draft regulation aims to provide easy-to-understand information on the front of packaged food to help consumers make healthy purchasing decisions.
This type of labelling has been incorporated successfully into several other countries and has been shown to help consumers better understand what they are eating.
The draft regulations also propose introducing restrictions on how foods can be marketed when those foods are deemed unhealthy.
The restrictions specifically aim to restrict techniques used to entice children to purchase and eat unhealthy food – an important measure as children are more vulnerable to persuasive marketing practices.
Especially in light of the worrying revelation early last week by Statistics South Africa that non-communicable diseases – diseases often associated with poor diets – have increased by 58 percent in the last two decades.
However, there has been staunch opposition from the food industry, and several red-herring arguments have been advanced.
We provide the following clarification to help the public understand the new proposed draft regulations.
Food producers will have fair use of their trademarks
The food industry argues that the restriction in the regulations aimed to remove misleading product descriptors “arbitrarily” deprive producers of their intellectual property rights.
First, the Trade Mark Act, the law regulating the protection of trademarks in South Africa, already contains a list of criteria limiting the use of trademarks, including allowing other laws to restrict trademarks or prescribing that marks which are confusing or misleading do not attract legal protection.
Second, food producers register multiple variations of their trademarks and will not face significant trade implications should a variation fall foul of the law.
As an example, we searched the Companies and Intellectual Property online database for trademarks affiliated with a popular soda brand in South Africa and found 60 different trademark results.
The regulations are deemed successful internationally The World Health Organization has called for front-of-pack labelling as a key consumer nutrition literacy intervention to promote healthy diets.
While it is very difficult to show how a policy intervention like a front-of-pack label can improve overall dietary choices, preliminary evidence exists (from Chile and more broadly), and strong evidence shows that the information-imparting objective is effective.
Additionally, the importance of the attached marketing restrictions to protect children has been proven, as studies show a strong link between unhealthy food marketing and childhood obesity.
Consumers should know that food contains ‘artificial sweeteners’
Evidence suggests that providing a warning label on excess sugar can lead consumers to unknowingly substitute sugar-sweetened beverages with alternative sweetened beverages (beverages containing artificial sweeteners).
The safety of artificial sweeteners is still debated.
The warning label is intended to be a consumer information intervention and warning consumers, especially parents, allows consumers to make a decision on appropriate artificial sweetener intake given the risk of allergic reaction, impact on diet for patients with diabetes, potential impact on long term food preferences and emerging evidence on the risk of cancer.
The label will not make it more difficult to import or export food
All countries have variations in food safety and labelling standards and require different procedures to meet local laws. There is a definite trend towards introducing front-of-pack labelling, and food producers seek regulatory harmonisation, endorsing FOPL policies to best achieve this goal.
The food industry will unfairly lose profits
Some food producers argue that they will lose profit because consumers will not buy foods with the warning labels – that is the point!
People will always eat – having people eat healthier foods should encourage food producers to make better alternatives available to the public. Corporate profits can never be more important than public health.
* Nzama Mbalati is the programmes manager at the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala).
* Zukiswa Zimela is the communications manager at Heala.
This oped was first published on IOL on the 9th of November 2023