Food labelling legislation - will it help consumers?

South Africans have been waiting for 17 years for new food labelling and advertising legislation to kick in. Unfortunately this new set of rules, to be implemented on 1 March 2012, has a number of weaknesses which may disadvantage SA consumers, says DietDoc.  

Food labelling legislation - will it help consumers?

Last Friday, I attended a Workshop on "The Labelling and Advertising of Food" organised by the South African Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST). The purpose of the workshop was to make the new legislation related to food labelling and advertising, which will become mandatory on 1 March 2012, more understandable to food manufacturers and producers. While the speakers were explaining the various aspects of the regulations governing the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs, I realised that these regulations which the food industry, the nutrition fraternity, and the public had been waiting for, for 17 years, have certain advantages for the general public, but that there are also certain disadvantages associated with this new set of rules.

Advantages for consumers

The Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, No. R. 146 of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972) have the following advantages (among others) for consumers:

  • They specify a standard method of conveying information about foodstuffs to the consumer. As of next year, all food labels and advertising will have to conform to the same format. After 1 March 2012, all the superlatives and often ludicrous claims used on food labels and in advertising will disappear
  • They will ensure a fair comparison between products
  • They enforce truthful descriptions and prevent the propagation of misleading and ambiguous messages regarding the characteristics of the foods and beverages that are on sale to the public in South Africa
  • If a food manufacturer includes a ‘Typical Nutritional Information Table’ on a food label, he will be allowed to state that the given food is ‘A source of’, or ‘High in’ or ‘Low in’ or ‘Virtually free of’ or ‘Free of’ a given nutrient or nutrients. This will enable consumers to check which foods they elect to purchase if they are, for example, looking for foods that are low in fat or high in vitamins, etc
  • The specifications relating to allergens are well formulated and anyone with an allergy triggered by the so-called ‘common allergens’ (i.e. egg, cow’s milk, crustaceans and molluscs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts and significant cereals, which include wheat, kamut, spelt, rye, barley, oats or crossbred hybrids of these cereals), will only have to check the list of ingredients to see at a glance if the food contains one or more of these allergens. Such food labels will also have to display a notice ‘Contains milk, etc’
  • The use of ‘No sugar added’ will be prohibited for all foods that inherently contain any type of sugar. Fruit juices, for example, which inherently contain high levels of fructose, fruit concentrates, etc, but no added table sugar, may thus no longer display a ‘No added sugar’ claim on their labels.
  • No label may make a so-called ‘Negative content claim’ if all the foods in the same category are also free of the specific nutrient. This means that plant oils which presently state that they are ‘Cholesterol free’ as an advertising ploy, will have to change their statement to ‘A naturally cholesterol free food’ because all plant oils are actually free of cholesterol.

Disadvantages for consumers

Regulations No. R 146 do, however, have a number of weaknesses which may disadvantage consumers in this country. One of the most serious drawbacks is that fact that a whole range of food product label and advertising issues are not yet addressed in R. 146, and theoretically all the food properties listed below will not be able to be communicated to the public after 1 March 2012:

  • Any foodstuff for which a so-called ‘Nutrition Function Claim’ could be made (e.g. the high bioavailable calcium content of milk and dairy products, which may prevent osteoporosis), will not be allowed to display any such information on the food label(s) or in adverts for the benefit of users. A milk drink label will be allowed to state ‘A food naturally high in calcium’, but no mention will be made of its effect on osteoporosis. 
  • ‘Enhanced function claims’ will also be in limbo, so the public cannot be informed if a manufacturer has added nutrients to a food product to improve its nutritive value. We will have to do our own detective work and compare the labels of similar foodstuffs to see if product X contains more dietary fibre (for example) than product Y. Most literate consumers with a keen interest in nutrition or a specific dietary need, will probably be able to figure out which of these two products has the higher content of dietary fibre, but many shoppers may well not have the time to figure out this information on their own
  • Any product that contains pre- and probiotics is not covered by the new Regulations and no disclosures about beneficial microorganisms or compounds which promote their growth in the gastrointestinal tract, will be allowed after 1 March 2012
  • The labelling of slimming and diabetic products has also not yet been addressed, which means that people who want to lose weight or have diabetes or insulin resistance will be in the dark about any food products that may, or may not be beneficial to their condition. You will be able to work out for yourself which foods are low in energy, fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, to name but a few of the characteristics sought by slimmers and patients with insulin problems, but all specific slimming and diabetic products will not be identifiable.
  • No specifications have so far been published regarding the mention of the glycaemic index (GI) on labels or in advertising. So a manufacturer of a food with a low-GI will not be able to mention this fact on the label of his product or advertise that product as low-GI after 1 March 2012.

The reason for these omissions is that the above mentioned issues affecting labelling and advertising have not yet been included in R. 146. The Department of Health, who are responsible for formulating and publishing food labelling regulations, have stated that these issues will be addressed in a Phase 2 document which will appear at a later date. At present there is no indication how long we will have to wait for the Phase 2 document. We can but hope that it won’t take another 17 years for this piece of legislation to come into effect.

Nutrition information not compulsory

In addition, R. 146 states that it is not compulsory for food manufacturers to publish a ‘Typical Nutritional Information Table’ on a food label, if he is not going to make any ‘High/Low’ claims about that food. Consequently, smaller food manufacturers who cannot afford the considerable costs of having their food products analysed by an accredited laboratory every 3 years so that they have proof on file ready for inspection, may opt to leave out the ‘Typical Nutritional Information Table’. Consumers purchasing such products will then only know that the food contains certain ingredients (including allergens, additives, etc), the metric weight, the ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ date, necessary storage information and the contact details of the manufacturer or distributor or importer. This is a distinct disadvantage to consumers who may want to know more about the nutritive properties of these foods when they purchase them.

While the new food labelling regulation R. 146, will address many problems we experience at present in relation to food labels and advertising, we may well find that once they come into effect in March 2012, that we, as consumers, will not yet be fully apprised and may even have less information available to make informed choices about our foods, than in the past.

- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, May 2011)


(Government Gazette, 2010. Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs. No. R. 146 of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). 1 March 2010. Government Printer.)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

Read more:

SA's new food regulations
Additives and their E numbers
The parent's guide to food labels

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