SA consumers face food-labelling scare

2013-02-17 10:00

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Where does the food you work all hours to put on the family dinner table come from? Until recently you would have named a retailer and thought nothing more of it.

However, a food-labelling scare in the UK has tentacles that could reach all the way to South Africa and has had domestic retailers scrambling to ensure that what they are telling customers is in their imported packets reflects reality.

The scare illustrates the complexity of the 21st century global food chain and the difficulty of knowing the origins of the food you feed to your children.

While authorities across Europe have been quick to point out that products containing horse meat pose no health risk, it does raise serious concerns about fraudulent practices in the food trade.

Investigations are under way to ensure a range of Findus-prepared frozen ready meals, which are imported into South Africa for Pick n Pay Holdings by Sea Harvest, which is majority owned by the JSE-listed Brimstone Investment Corporation, are not tainted.

Shoprite also confirmed this week it imports products from UK frozen food chain Iceland, part owned by its biggest shareholder Christo Wiese.

It does illustrate the small-world nature of the global food chain.

JSE-listed investment company Brait last year trumpeted its role in the acquisition of a stake in frozen foods specialists Iceland.

It, along with Dubai-based Landmark Group and Iceland founder Graham Kirkham, bought a 57% stake in the business. Brait, in turn, counts Wiese as its anchor 34% shareholder. He holds 16% of Shoprite, which in turn carries Iceland products.

It insists the range it carries remains untainted and includes no beef products.

The apparently innocuous practice of food imports poses serious challenges for regulators.

The food chain is long and can be difficult to trace as it connects a vast web of financial interests, from farmers to buyers to abattoirs, intermediaries, manufacturers, numerous complicated shareholdings, exporters, retailers and, finally, the finished product that ends up in the homes of consumers.

Sea Harvest, for example, has exported fish to Findus in Sweden for the past 13 years and recently began importing its brand of ready meals to this country.

Findus in the UK is at the centre of a scandal in which horse meat has been substituted for beef in a range of its ready meals. Findus SA, however, says it imports only 17 products, only one of which contains meat, from Sweden.

Until recently, that country had been in the clear as only its products sourced from France had been problematic. It has since emerged that Findus lasagne made in Sweden also contained horse meat. The dish imported into South Africa is currently being tested to ensure the ingredients match what is on the label.

The spotlight is now being cast on the European food-production network and follows hot on the heels of a scandal, which erupted when UK supermarket group Tesco was exposed for selling “100% pure beef burgers” containing high proportions of horse meat.

Following the Findus revelations, there have been other examples, including some of Tesco’s own brands, which have been shown to contain horse meat.

Nigel Sunley, a food technologist at Sunley Food Consulting, says that while South Africa has a strong legislative framework governing food safety and the labelling of what appears on our shelves, enforcement is patchy and it’s up to individual retailers to ensure the integrity of their supply chain.

This plays directly into the hands of Woolworths, which says it regularly audits its carefully chosen suppliers to ensure that its customers are getting what they see displayed on the label.

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