When you buy goods marked organic, natural, ethical or biodegradable – how do you know they really are?
The worrying revelation from the consumer-led NPO, Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers (TOPIC), is that food and product label claims in South Africa have been unregulated.
Spokesperson for TOPIC, Peter Becker, says that mislabelling and food fraud in South Africa is a concern.
“It is estimated that more than a third of products on our shelves are falsely labelled. For most small retailers, testing products is not an option because they don’t have the resources,” he says.
To address this, TOPIC has been formed, and is funded by consumers and retailers that are committed to transparency.
TOPIC uses laboratory testing, farm and factory visits and any other means necessary to verify that ingredients and label claims are accurate.
Mr Becker says that TOPIC engages with the producer of consumer-nominated goods, and all the certifications and claims are thoroughly investigated. Independent laboratory tests and/or factory and farm visits are also conducted as needed.
A Capri online business, Faithful to Nature has been partnering with TOPIC.
Robyn Smith lives in Kommetjie and started her business in a double garage almost nine years ago.
“While suppliers need to care more about what is going into their products, consumers too need to care more about reading ingredient lists.”
She says that ingredient safety and transparency is core to her business.
“We check every single product we sell to ensure it is really as green and as safe as the manufacturers claim it is,” she says.
“I started the business because I was passionate about creating a ‘worry-free’ platform where South Africans could shop. I wanted to provide a service to people that left them feeling empowered by their buying decisions. Although we sell natural and organic goodies, I tell my staff repeatedly that we are in fact selling honesty and transparency to our customers,” she says.
She says this means that they will not upload a single product unless they have a full ingredient listing – and those ingredients have been checked. She currently has 11 000 product options that have all been vetted for honesty.
“We were the first retailer to support the product testing organisation TOPIC, as it helps build a more ethical shopping experience for our customers,” she says.
“The health and environment-conscious market is nothing without consumers’ faith and trust in the fact that these products are better for them,” Ms Smith says.
“This is why it is so important that the industry maintains its integrity. The initiative from TOPIC is the first step I have seen in securing and building a firm foundation for the natural and organic industry in South Africa that our customers can trust.
“I believe that TOPIC is one of the most exciting developments that the natural and organic industry have yet seen and I am passionately adamant that every one of us that cares about the industry need to support this powerful project,” she says.
Mr Becker says the most common mis-information in labelling revolves around sugar content. He says many products claim no sugar but actually have coconut blossom or honey. He says the labelling is an education process. One supplier who hadn’t been investigated by the NPO noticed that honey was considered a sugar and of her own choice admitted this as an oversight, apologised and changed her labels.
“There’s also a difference between contaminated products, which have been exposed to peanuts during transportation and mislabelled goods; but these are crucial differences somebody who has a genuine allergy versus an intolerance,” Mr Becker points out.
Mr Becker, a Claremont resident, points out that TOPIC applies their investigation to all labels, not just organic, natural or biodegradable.
“We are not an activist group and are not vindictive, we are looking for constructive engagement with all. Whereas before, the corporations had all the power, social media is now changing that, and can create a call from 10 – to a million people – with their focus on one thing. In this case, ethical and accurate labelling,” he says.
Consumers can nominate products for testing on Facebook at topicsa, on Twitter @topic_label) or anonymously via the website www.topicsa.org.za
The introduction of the Consumer Protection Act has contributed towards better regulation of labels. It has, for example, formulated guidelines about providing information on the use of genetically modified organisms in food products on their labels.
If you cannot find the name or logo but the product claims to be organic, phone the manufacturer and ask which certifying organisation it uses.
The retailer of the product should also be able to provide either information about its supply chain or even organic certification programme documents.
Eileen Webb, information officer from the Standard Sales and Information Services of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) head office in Pretoria, said that when it comes to food labelling, the directorate of food control of the Department of Health administers the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act 54 of 1972 Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, Notice R. 146 Government Gazette No. 32975 of 1 March 2010. She did not say how these regulations are enforced.
A certification company, Ecocert Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd, based in Stellenbosch, was registered in 2002. They do organic inspection and certification, training in organic agriculture, inspection in organic cosmetics, green spaces, Fair Trade and Corporate Social Responsibility.
Marianna Smith, certification officer with Ecocert, said that they do an annual inspection of all products who are certified by them, and that includes checking the labels. “We see the label as an extension of the certificate we provide,” Ms Smith says.
Ecocert is an inspection and certification body established in France in 1991 by agronomists aware of the need to develop environmentally friendly agriculture and of the importance of offering some form of recognition to those committed to this method of production. From its creation, Ecocert has specialised in the certification of organic agricultural products.