Chain stores bust for old food

13 August 2014 - 02:11 By Leonie Wagner

Major retailers have been implicated in a food-labelling scandal that puts consumers at risk of diarrhoea, vomiting and, in severe cases, even death.

A National Consumer Commission investigation has lifted the lid on widespread unlawful alteration, replacement and removal of food labels at Shoprite, Spar, OK Foods, U-save and other stores.

The commission found 84 retailers in Mpumalanga and North West that were guilty of tampering with labels on many basic food items, such as eggs, milk, tea, mincemeat, baby formula, chocolates, biscuits and cheese.

At one store, tins of baby formula had expired last year but were being sold, at the same price, months later. At another shop, boerewors was labelled as "char-grill, beef-flavour burgers".

Commission inspectors told The Times they were "shocked" by what they had seen. Food labels were erased with marking fluid and others had been torn off, ingredient lists were missing and homemade labels, with false expiry dates, had been placed over original labels. Some items had no labelling at all.

The commission's head of investigations, Prudence Moilwa, said all the guilty shops had signed forms undertaking to rectify their wrongful practices.

Shoprite has attributed the discoveries to "human error", while Spar says stores are individually owned and controlled.

The commission plans to extend its investigation to the rest of the country, believing that labelling crimes are rife.

This is largely because some of the 84 shops it visited were from chains with a countrywide presence. But many spaza shops and general dealers were also at fault.

It is an offence under the Consumer Protection Act to alter, falsify or remove a food label and those found guilty of doing so face up to 12 months' imprisonment or a fine of R1-million or up to 10% of their annual turnover.

The consequences for unsuspecting consumers can also be severe.

Food microbiologist and food safety expert Lucia Anelich said though it was not always dangerous to eat expired food, it could lead to food poisoning that, in extreme cases, could be fatal.

"Generally speaking, the vulnerable sectors of the population [young children, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women] are more susceptible to food poisoning and to more severe effects of food poisoning."

These included kidney failure, birth defects and meningitis, she said.

The head of the commission's inspection team, Ntsako Khoza, said one shop manager had admitted that he had instructed his staff to remove the labels from products that had passed their expiry date, saying he had not had enough time to sell the products and was losing money.

Consumer law expert Trudie Broekmann said the commission's findings served as a "wake-up call" for retailers.

"This [scandal] could cause phenomenal damage [to a retailer's image] in the eyes of the consumer. These things can open retailers up to big claims, including legal and medical expenses and compensation for the harm caused to the consumer," Broekmann said.

Sarita van Wyk, spokesman for the Shoprite Checkers group, which includes OK Foods and U-Save stores, attributed failures to human error: "An average store in the supermarket group carries up to 30000 food products and human error will, unfortunately occur from time to time on individual products."

Van Wyk said OK Foods was managed by individual franchises and she could not speak on their behalf.

Similarly, Mike Prentice, Spar Group merchandise executive, said: "All of the Spar stores are actually owned by the independent retailers and are therefore managed separately and are not owned by Spar the listed company. As a result, they do not have reporting channels on all events that take place at store level."

Stomach-turning experiences

Sylvia Hutchison - I bought a gammon from Spar and when I got home I saw it was past its use-by date. I returned it, no problem - except the next day I saw all the gammon had been rewrapped with new dates.

Steve Annesley Austen - At the Spar in Observatory, Cape Town, I bought oxtail so ripe that it nearly ran out of the room when I opened the bag.

Louise Brink Sander - We bought Cerelac baby cereal in March 2013 (from Woolworths). The expiry date was March 2012.

Asanda Omuhle Masinyane - Shoprite and Spar are the worst. I don't even look at Shoprite's butchery now.

Mthunzi Khumalo - I bought McCain Frozen Chips at Checkers on special. The expiry date was something like 2016 but the chips had black spots and smelled something awful.

The investigation

A recent investigation by the National Consumer Commission revealed a host of food labelling abuses, including:

  • Selling products that have reached their expiry date, such as baby milk formula, Joko tea and cheese
  • Products with no labelling, including eggs, biscuits, chocolate and mince meat
  • One product marked as another: A packet of boerewors from OK Foods labelled as “chargrill beef-flavour” burgers - Leonie Wagner

The irregularities:

Of the stores that were inspected in Mpumalanga and North-West, 84 were found to have label irregularities. These included:

- Tlokwe Local Municipality: Bailliepark Spar, Potch Spar, Potch Supersave, U-Save Ikageng

- Ventersdorp: OK Foods, Alpha Spar, Pick n Save, Alex Hyper Supermarket

- Mbombela: Shoprite Kabokweni, Boxer Superstores

- Bushbuckridge: Spar Ximhungwe, Shoprite Mkhuhlu, Boxer superstores Thulamahashe - Leonie Wagner