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New Act to dish up healthy transparency

 The Big Issue South Africa 09 March 2019

Owners of the Brakpan bierboep may not give a hoot about the Consumer Protection Act that kicks in on April 1, but anyone picky about what passes their lips will welcome this new platter of progressive legislation. In effect, savvy shoppers have won a welcome victory in the food fight that has been raging between careful consumers and unscrupulous producers. But for some, the battle has only begun. (1389 Words) - By Albert Buhr

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The new Consumer Protection Act will give South African shoppers the right to know what's in their food and how it's made, but it's how we exercise these rights that will be the true test of the strength of the legislation.

So what does the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) entail? Firstly, South African consumers will be among the most protected in the world. On the condition that you care to read labels, of course. No longer can food and beverage producers make unproven claims and sneak poisons past us with innocuous wordplay. Mechanisms have been put in place to enable consumers to enforce their rights and, in theory, if a product keeps calling MSG "flavour enhancer", its producers may face the strong arm of the law.

It's all about transparency - a spot of the WikiLeaks ethic for our supermarket aisles. Whereas conscious consumers have always been saddled with plenty of guesswork, we will now actually be allowed to assert our right to know.

Consumer law specialist Neville Melville, author of The Consumer Protection Act made easy, has pointed out that "it is no longer a world where the buyer needs to beware, but rather the seller. The Act will have a significant impact on the way business is conducted in South Africa".

The ambit of the Act is very wide and
affects all goods, from computer software to legal services and even promotional competitions. It will apply to virtually every business transaction. Previously product liability was limited to the manufacturer but now importers, distributors and retailers are also included. This means retailers are exposed to liability actions and must therefore take on a whole new level of responsibility.

Says Keith Marshall, regional manager at insurance group Chartis South Africa: "This wide definition means that retailers will be the ones targeted by disgruntled buyers, because they are closer to the consumer than suppliers further down the line. We are becoming more litigious as a society and consumers are more educated about their rights."

Tricked into believing you eat healthily

When it comes to consumers becoming more educated about what products they buy, food is at the forefront. But the food manufacturing industry, in general, has never made it easy for consumers to find out what goes into their products and how they're made.

"You need to be really determined and informed these days just to find foods that are truly natural and free from man-made chemicals, pesticides and additives," says Cape Town-based nutritionist Sarah Ryan.

"Our bodies store these toxins, often in disturbingly large quantities, and over time this can result in chronic and devastating illnesses, from fibromyalgia to cancer. The problem is that many people think they're eating healthily, when in fact they've been misled by packaging or marketing that suggest a product is good for you, when it isn't. For example, a product full of refined sugar, damaged fats and table salt contaminated with genetic modification and sprayed with pesticides, is still legally allowed to be labelled 'natural', misleading you into thinking it's healthy."

And so it remains to be seen if consumer groups will capitalise on the new legislation provided by the CPA to bring about more far-reaching change. One such group, the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB), has taken action to try and amend the Act itself, saying: "The regulations are weak and undermine consumer choice while addressing the needs of big business instead. All South Africans need to act urgently and immediately to the proposed regulations in the CPA governing the labelling of genetically modified (GM) food. We are demanding certain changes that ensure everyone's right to know."

They explain: "GM companies are constantly applying for approval for various GM crops and animals and, if approved, such foods enter our food chain and will not be labelled until the regulations are revised. In the meantime the consumer is left uninformed. In fact, the approval of the cultivation of GM potatoes in South Africa might be granted if the applying body wins their appeal. We could have GM potatoes entering our food chain without our knowledge. An essential element for the labelling of GM foods is to protect your right to know and make informed choices. Since our supermarket shelves are full of foods that contain GM ingredients, it has never been more critical that food labelling is accurate and transparent."

Whereas our European trading partners only tolerate a 0.9% threshold on explicitly labelling a product containing GM ingredients, our new Consumer Protection Act allows a 5% threshold, even though there is no difference in cost to test for 1% or 5%. And this still seems minor compared to the boat-sized loophole in the Act that allows companies to avoid labelling foods by simply declaring that it was not possible or feasible to test for GM content. The consumer's right to know seems dangerously undermined with this one single clause.

"A 5% GM presence is too high," says the ACB. "We live in a global village and import food from all over the world. We could be having GM beets, GM brinjals, GM salmon and GM sugar cane on our supermarket shelves, which will all be exempt from labelling in terms of the current regulations. The regulations also exclude foods containing GM cottonseed oil from labelling, and are unclear about meat, milk and eggs from animals raised on GM feed."

Taking factory farmers to task

When it comes to animals, one imagines most would agree with William Blake's sentiment that "a Robin redbreast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage". Heaven seems to have forgotten about the humble chicken, though. Clip its wings, burn off its beak and stick it in a cage the size of a shoebox for its entire life. Delicious? The local chapter of the international organisation Compassion in World Farming thinks not. They are bringing a class action lawsuit against factory farming on the day after the Act comes into effect. They believe the Act could be the catalyst for a general phase-out of factory farming in South Africa.

Indeed, the new Act gives anyone recourse against commercial practices that are "unconscionable" and "unethical or improper to a degree that would shock the conscience of a reasonable person". For anyone aware of the unnecessary misery behind our supply of cheap meat, factory farming undoubtedly falls into this category.

"We've been lobbying for years for proper labelling of cruel production systems," says Louise van der Merwe, the South African representative of Compassion in World Farming. "Supermarkets are well aware that most of their customers have never set foot on a factory farm in their lives. Thus, their argument that they provide what consumers demand is specious, because the vast majority of consumers are not in a position to make an informed choice.

The organisation is calling on supermarkets to introduce a welfare checklist label on all animal-derived products that will afford consumers the right to make informed choices. This ought to be welcomed by those who agreed with Gandhi's sentiment that "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated".

To be clear, the issue here is not what dinner you choose to put on your table, but whether you got the truth on the label.

Despite the flaws and loopholes in the CPA, whether your concern is centred on health, the humane treatment of beings, or just plain fair play, the Act is some cause for celebration, because it is a giant leap in the right direction.

 

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Originally published by Spare Change News © www.streetnewsservice.org

 

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