The Department of Health has joined a global movement to amend legislation to compel manufacturers to label food — particularly highly processed food high in sugar, fat and salt — in a way that consumers will easily see and understand.
This comes after it was identified that current labels on food were not consumer-friendly with most people unable to interpret them, which leads to many making uninformed choices about the food they eat.
Chief Director of Nutrition in the Department of Health, Lynn Moeng says the department is conducting studies to find labelling that consumers can relate to.
“The department started a process of researching what would work best for the South African consumer. We are still in that process… and a research organisation is [looking into] what consumers will understand best. When that is done, we can start the process of regulating how food products should be labelled specifically in front.”
Moeng says having the label on the front of the package does not mean that other nutritional information will be excluded from the packaging.
“It does not necessarily mean we will discontinue the original messages. People who want more details will still get [it] at the back.”
Once the regulations have been implemented, food that is high in sugar, salt, and fat will have a warning for consumers.
Empowerment and other benefits
Nick Stacey, a research economist at the Wits School of Public Health’s research unit Priority Cost Effective Lessons for System Strengthening South Africa (PRICELESS SA) says that the front of package labels should empower the consumer.
“Ideally what we would like to see are labels that are prominent on the face of the packaging… and in particular, will communicate whether or not a particular product is too high in nutrients that are harmful or bad for health. The idea is to empower the consumer with information about foods that may or may not be harmful.”
He also hopes manufacturers will be encouraged by the changes.
“A secondary benefit that could come from this is that by putting these labels on food you can also encourage manufacturers to reduce the levels of unhealthy nutrients that they have in their foods so it can have the secondary benefit of making the food supply healthier.”
A good change
Programme manager at Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) Lawrence Mbalati says that he is pleased with strides made by government to ensure that a policy is in place to identify food that is healthy or unhealthy and packaging it in a way that consumers will be able to make informed choices. He is, however, expecting resistance from the food industry.
“We are going to anticipate a backlash from the industry as always is the case. We want this process to be neutral and be driven by consumer needs.”
HEALA, he says, will ensure that the food industry abides by the regulations.
“We will look out for any form of deception from the industry in terms of which labels or signs that can be used and we will use our institutional memory from partners in other countries in terms of what labels have been found to be effective on the front of package labelling.”
A greater effort
Mbalati acknowledges it will take more than warning signs to change consumer behaviour and to curb food-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and hypertension.
“Over and above policy regulation, changing social norms is a long process that requires other policies that have been proven to work. We want policies that are going to ensure that people have access to affordable healthier food options. Government must make sure that we realise that people can have access to food that can prevent NCDs instead of reacting to more people being at risk of developing NCDs.”
HEALA calls on government to also have policies in place that will be enforceable particularly policies that will prevent industry from advertising to children at school and making sure that there is no junk food or fizzy drinks being sold within the schooling environment.
An edited version of this story was first published in Health24.