Two goals are at the heart of the Consumer Protection Act no 68 of 2008 (CPA), said Department of Trade and Industry deputy director general Macdonald Netshitenzhe at a seminar on food labelling and consumer protection in Pretoria on Wednesday.
These are to protect consumers, and to provide them with the information to make informed choices.
“Don’t be captured by the industry or the politics,” he said to his colleagues in this field, pleading for them to remain focused on those twin goals.
Thezi Mabuza, deputy commissioner in the National Consumer Commission (NCC), underlined that Section 55 of the CPA gives consumers the right to fair value, good quality and safety.
Exercises conducted by the NCC focused on a range of retailers from large to small, looking at labelling and trade description issues (including country of origin, ingredients and sell by/best by/use by dates). “What we found was shocking,” said Mabuza.
“Sometimes we think that the big retailers are the ones we don’t have to worry about,” she said. However, that did not always turn out to be the case. “Some had expired products still on their shelves. Some dates were defaced. And it’s really important for consumers to know when they should consume this food.”
In some cases, processed food such as cold meats that were packaged internally, especially in the big retailers, were repackaged to move from the ‘elite’ range to a mid-level range, ultimately ending up being sold at taxi ranks. With each move, dates were altered or not given, said Mabuza.
Another issue the NCC identified was the use by big retailers of smaller manufacturers, in the interests of diversity. However, the retailers do not set standards to ensure proper labelling and these manufacturers are not trained in labelling, so labels have aspects missing.
Many products, especially in poorer areas and close to borders, are not labelled in a language that is “plain and understandable”, as required by the act, with goods frequently labelled entirely in Portuguese, French or Mandarin.
Mabuza also noted outright “deliberate dishonesty”: suppliers selling retailers red meat in the form of mince, for example, which is actually kangaroo or horse meat and not beef.
Mabuza said it is important to educate suppliers and retailers on their obligations, and urged them to embrace the CPA.
“It is very costly to police and enforce these rights,” she added, which is why buy-in to the act by business is so important. It is also vital that all parties involved in enforcement coordinate their activities. “When we do, it really works,” said Mabuza.
“Our consumers are not yet there yet in terms of fighting for their rights. We as the NCC need to focus on building consumer groups that are able to stand up for themselves, especially in the less resourced communities,” said Mabuza.