HEALTH-E NEWS OP-ED

Food justice is a pipe dream without tackling industry

By Lawrence Mbalati for Healthy Living Alliance 19 May 2019

A customer pays for maize in a shop in Soweto south west of Johannesburg (Gallo) donald food

The lack of access to healthy food is both a cause and a symptom of the structural inequalities that exist in South Africa and slow progress in introducing stricter regulations for the food industry, Healthy Living Alliance’s Lawrence Mbalati writes.

In a country like South Africa — with the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality — food justice is only the beginning of a long conversation for addressing socio-economic rights. The historical injustices of people in South Africa remain geographically, socially and economically isolated from the conversation the country is having about healthy food options.

The increasing supply of unhealthy food to South Africans resulted in almost four out of ten South African women being obese, and close to 70% are overweight. The increasing rates of obesity are the leading cause of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases and stroke — which places a higher burden on an already strained public health system, the economy and results in preventable deaths. The endless options of highly processed food, obscure labels and aggressive advertising by the food industry disempower consumers from choosing healthier meals.

Food justice is the belief that healthy food is a human right, and that everyone has an inherent right to access healthy food. This comes with the hope that we can begin to use food justice as a powerful strategy for mobilising society to achieve an overall just community. More important, food is a central part of our daily lives and in the absence of effective policies that regulate the food industry, redress for consumers remains a pipe dream.

It is critical to locate the need for food justice and effective regulation of the food industry by using the existing infrastructure in South Africa. The country’s 2018 listeriosis outbreak was the worst of its kind in history and claimed the lives of more than 200 people, including 76 babies. After months of searching, the Department of Health revealed in March 2018 that the source of the outbreak was an Enterprise factory, a subsidiary of Tiger Brands, in Polokwane.

But the response from Tiger Brands was nothing short of arrogant — while they haven’t denied responsibility, they have refused to be held fully liable.

In December, the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court of South Africa granted an order permitting a class action lawsuit to be brought against Tiger Brands by Richard Spoor Inc Attorneys. The class action is brought on behalf of those sickened by Listeria-tainted polony and the families of those who lost loved ones.

Effectively, this case is simply about getting Tiger Brands to pay the victims that have suffered as a result of contracting listeriosis.

It was only after a national outcry that Tiger Brands recalled the infected batches of polony and called for studies to find the causes of the outbreak. The government stated the crisis was over, but listeriosis-infected polony was still found in rural areas across the country.

This has all exposed that big food companies, such as Tiger Brands, can continue to supply consumers with infected or unhealthy food linked with morbidity and mortality, for as long as it makes a profit. We could be in danger of future food-borne diseases due to lack of effective food regulation and control.

The lawsuit has been narrowed down to represent four key groups: People who were infected with listeriosis but did not die; babies who contracted listeriosis while in utero, but survived; those who were dependent on the individual who died as a result of listeriosis, and those who are looking after people who contracted listeriosis.

At this stage the quantum of damages claimed is unspecified as the first stage of the class action is concerned with liability. Only after liability has been ascertained will the quantum of damages be dealt with, and only if the court finds that the company is liable.

This case highlights weaknesses in the current South African regulations to protect consumers’ access to healthy food, and in the case of the listeriosis outbreak, resulted in further and unnecessary illnesses and loss of lives. The class action also demonstrates consumers’ vulnerabilities when it comes to access to safe and healthy food and exposes the industry greed which is often driven by profit margins and monopoly.

One year on after more than 200 people lost their lives to listeriosis, the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) has still not implemented the specifications for processed meat products. The Minister of Trade and Industry should be held responsible to ensure the NRCS does its job to protect the health, safety and environment of consumers. The fact that the food industry delayed specifications by four years, and we still don’t have specifications a year after the outbreak, is telling. The department is not doing enough to put in place and enforce regulations to stop greedy companies from threatening our health and safety.

But instead, the government enables Big Food to figuratively and literally get away with murder.

Civil society and communities need to join hands to demand public awareness and support for tighter regulations in order to shine a national spotlight on the truth. Another outbreak could be on our doorstep and it’s clear Big Food companies like Tiger Brands aren’t worried, because they care more about their profits than our health.

Activists need to put pressure on the Ministry of Trade and Industry to ensure that there is a speedy implementation of processed meat product regulations that the food industry has delayed for a long time. This will ensure that there are proper checks and balances in place that force industry to put the health of South Africa’s most vulnerable people first.

But, for now, the only reprieve and remedies consumers have at their disposal for food justice, protection and redress are lodging complaints to the office of the Consumer Protector, guided by the South African National Consumer Protection Act.

This is why the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) has undertaken to empower all South Africans to make healthy food and lifestyle choices to prevent obesity and non-communicable diseases. Heala will continue to campaign for progressive policies and regulations that promote and protect health, dignity and lives of all people living in South Africa. These include campaigning for an increase in the Health Promotion Levy on sugary drinks, from 11% to 20% as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

More measures must be put in place to inform and improve South Africans’ understanding of what’s in their food. For instance, through an introduction of effective Front of Package Labelling regulation and protecting children from advertising of unhealthy food and beverages, instead of the advertising industry being left to self-regulate.

In 2016, Chile introduced warning labels on energy-dense food high in added sugar, salt and saturated fats. A black stop sign accompanied the front of the labels of these kinds of food products, which are also not allowed to be sold in schools or advertised to children under the age of 14. A recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found the warning labels encouraged younger children to become promoters of healthier food choices in their families — a great step towards ending childhood obesity.

South Africa needs a progressive food justice movement emerging from communities in response to food insecurity, industry conduct and behaviour and economic pressures that prevent access to healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.

The lack of access to healthy food is both a cause and a symptom of the structural inequalities that exist in South Africa. To decrease the rate at which people are dying of non-communicable diseases will take more than just an individualised approach to tackling obesity. We need to take on the systemic socio-economic demographics such as race, gender and class.

The issue of food justice is not a foreign concept, as the global south epitomises the situation of how the lack of resources can have dire consequences. But initiatives such as community and urban gardens in impoverished areas can be part of the solution.

But the equity in both the decision-making process and the distribution of resources is at the core of food justice and can be achieved through progressive government food regulation policies. Perhaps the affordability of food may, in fact, influence food choice if the government chose to not only subsidise fruit and vegetables and also implement an increased tax on sugary drinks.

In some cases, studies are already showing that sugary drink consumption can be slashed by more than half after introducing a levy on these products.

We need advocacy to ensure that there is enough support for local healthy food production and supply for public consumption. The state needs to take progressive steps to support local production and procurement of food for communities and key institutions such as schools, clinics, hospitals and prisons. DM

Lawrence Mbalati is the Programmes Manager of the Healthy Living Alliance.

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