Grain enrichment a must for SA

2010-05-08 00:00

A TOTAL of R1,20 per year. That is all it will take to give a South African baby a chance of reaching normal mental and physical maturity.

This statement was made by former cabinet minister Jay Naidoo, who is now the president of the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

During an interview at a recent seminar of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain), Naidoo castigated the government for not creating the necessary awareness among poor South Africans of how essential vitamins and minerals are, particularly in staple foods.

“What is necessary, is a campaign on the scale of the anti-smoking campaign, to make people aware of the nutrients that are essential to their health,” said Naidoo in his capacity as chairperson of Gain.

In South Africa, 30% of maize meal and wheat products do not comply with the legal requirement that cereals have to be enriched with minerals such as iron and zinc and vitamins like vitamin A.

Especially small and medium-sized millers in country areas — where poverty is at its worst — ignore this legal requirement because the government does not enforce the law.

The consequences include retarded cognitive development with long-term damage to the intellectual and psychological development of babies and little children.

One in five children in South Africa are mentally and physically stunted as a result of malnutrition.

About 21,6% of children between one and six years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition.

One in every 10 children is underweight.

Ten percent of children are overweight and four percent suffer from obesity.

One-third of women and children suffer from anaemia due to a lack of iron enrichment, among other things. One-third of children and one quarter of women suffer from vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency leads directly to the death of 10 000 children per annum in South Africa.

Poor breastfeeding practices — partly because women are discouraged from breastfeeding because of the danger of mother-to-child HIV/Aids infection — result in the death of more than 7 300 babies a year in their first year of life.

Malnutrition and the underfeeding of adults and children in South Africa is estimated at between 25% and 35%.

But the government lacks the accountability to enforce its own laws, said Naidoo.

The large-scale lack of trust between government and the private sector when it comes to who is responsible for the enforcement of legislation to regulate food enrichment results directly in millions of people suffering from the effects of malnutritrion for the rest of their lives.

“The government sees the private sector as profitmongers, and the private sector sees the state as a bunch of officals who are wasting taxpayers’ money,” Naidoo said.

He also attacked the private sector for its “lack of moral and social obligation to enrich cereals of their own accord”.

“A poor individual cannot be expected not to buy the cheaper, non-enriched maize meal,” he said.

Naidoo pointed out that for South Africa’s poorest — “who have to spend 70% and more of their meagre income on food” — the price difference is often the difference between enriched and non-enriched meal.

The government has been aware of this state of affairs since as far back as 1999.

During a national survey on food consumption, it was found that one in every two children gets less than half of the minerals and vitamins they need through their daily food.

Besides anaemia and the stunting of growth, defects like night-blindness are the direct consequence.

In 2003, legislation was passed that made the addition of vitamin A, B (B1, B2,B6, BB3), folic acid, zinc and iron to grain products compulsory.

The aim was to provide children under the age of 10 with 25% of the essential nutrients. Maize meal and flour in 20 kg bags were earmarked as the “vehicle” for this purpose.

Where this was enforced, birth defects such as spina bifida (a condition involving the incomplete closure of the spinal cord) and nervous disorders were reduced.

Before the food enrichment, the number of recorded cases of babies with spina bifida was 970. This figure dropped to 570 after enrichment.

Nervous disorders in children dropped by 30,5%.

Gain estimates that just in terms of the reduced incidence of these two disorders because of the effects of food enrichment alone, South Africa saves R40 million a year.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies admitted during the Gain seminar that government policy and legislation have failed.

He said one of the problems is that small millers do not want to make use of available financial aid from government to improve their mills, which involves the installation of additional equipment to add the necessary minerals and vitamins to their products.

For this reason, government will take steps to enforce the legislation in the 2011-12 financial year.

20%

of children are mentally and physically stunted by malnutrition.

21,6%

of children between one and six years of age suffer from chronic malnutrition.

10%

of children are underweight.

4%

of children are obese.

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