“This needs to stop. They [are] selling us expired food and they are making their own cooldrink coz u find coke in a fanta bottle; fish tin but u find beans…”
That tweet‚ posted by “Bongani” on Thursday‚ covers some of the many food "crimes" foreign shopkeepers currently stand accused of‚ thanks to a series of unscientific videos circulating on social media: the selling of old‚ allegedly “rotten” food; passing off inferior fizzy drinks in Coca-Cola bottles and‚ more bizarrely‚ selling totally fake foods such as eggs which never saw the inside of a chicken.
Somalian traders have also been accused of selling two-week-old Albany bread which still looks and feels fresh‚ but which‚ according to a video demonstration‚ turned to sinister mush when soaked in water.
Health department officials have raided foreign-owned shops and confiscated goods which they broadly categorise as “counterfeit and expired” and the National Consumer Commission says it’s working on a strategy to deal with the food-related allegations.
Adding to the confusion‚ health minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s spokesman Popo Maja was quoted as saying that foodborne disease outbreaks in South Africa are typically caused by “food contaminated with bacteria‚ viruses or parasites and harmful colourants”.
“Sudan Red dye colourant is prohibited for use in foods products in South Africa.”
Professor Gunnar Sigge‚ head of Stellenbosch University’s food science department‚ said foodborne disease outbreaks were not caused by harmful colourants. “That would take years to manifest in some cases and would be a poisoning‚ not a disease‚” he said.
Responding to the other foodie scares‚ Coca-Cola said it hasn’t received a single complaint from any consumer about the products featured in the social media videos‚ and has urged people to contact the company on 0860 11 2526 to report any product they believe “has been compromised”.
SA’s Egg Organisation’s acting CEO Chris Mason said he believed that the fake egg production video was a hoax.
As for that bread video‚ Tiger Brands’ group media and PR manager conceded that “the bread in that video behaved uncharacteristically. Whilst bread does not fully dissolve in water due to the starch and gluten contained in it‚ it does break down or fall apart fairly rapidly.
“Also‚ bread typically remains fresh for between five and seven days‚ so bread remaining that ‘fresh’ for two weeks is highly unusual‚ unless of course it was frozen or refrigerated at some point. We are still investigating this matter‚ which will include determining the origin of the product and conducting the necessary tests. But I can say that Albany bread is not ‘killing people slowly'.”
While the counterfeiting or fraudulent substituting of food requires urgent investigation‚ what the authorities are not telling the nation is that it is neither illegal nor unsafe to sell “shelf stable” food that is past is “best before” date.
The fear and loathing of “expired” foods runs very deep with South Africans‚ based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue; a misunderstanding which neither the health department nor the National Consumer Commission has done anything to counter.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then‚ that the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud notes in the “Consumers’ rights regarding expiry dates” advisory note on its website that the office has received various claims arising from claimed illness caused by expired foodstuffs‚ “including a claim seeking compensation for a miscarriage and the loss of an RDP home following an illness allegedly caused by stale crisps”.
The reality is that the blanket term “expiry date” is grossly misleading. Perishable foods such as meat and dairy products do pose a safety risk to consumers if consumed after their “use-by” dates‚ which is why it is illegal to sell or even donate those products beyond their “use by” dates - they must be disposed of.
But it’s a very different story with the “shelf stable” products which TV cameras have captured being forcibly removed by police and looters from foreign-owned spaza shops - long-life milk‚ canned food‚ maize meal‚ mayonnaise‚ many of which were revealed by eNCA to be well within their “best-before” dates in any event.
Those products carry best-before dates rather than “use by” ones‚ because they don’t become “rotten” or “spoilt” the day after that date; they slowly become slightly less flavourful or crispy‚ for example. It’s a quality‚ not a safety issue‚ which is why it is not illegal for them to remain on sale after their “best before” date.
“These foods can last for years and ‘best before’ labelling is quite irrelevant to such products‚ as it has nothing to do with food safety but rather food quality‚” says Dr Lucia Anelich‚ food safety expert and president of the SA Association of Food Science and Technology.
“As a result‚ perfectly safe food is often discarded because the perception is created that the food is no longer safe for human consumption the day after its best before date‚ which is not the case. This contributes to food waste‚ a globally increasing problem.”
If food is contaminated with bacteria which could sicken humans‚ such as listeria‚ the date it was manufactured and when it “expires” is irrelevant - the hundreds of South Africans who have fallen ill or died from listeriosis had no doubt eaten polony which was well within its best-before date.