Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


Here’s why you should care about the food industry lobbying the health department behind closed doors

Here’s why you should care about the food industry lobbying the health department behind closed doors
The South African Health Department has proposed introducing warning labels on some food products to help consumers make better choices. But not all food labels are equally effective. Public health experts fear the industry may already be trying to water down draft legislation. (Photo: Laura James / Pexels)

Industry influence on health policies is greatest before draft legislation is ever made public in South Africa, researchers warn. Could the country’s latest attempt to curb deadly epidemics fall prey to the same?

The food industry has begun lobbying the National Health Department on proposed food warning labels, even before the draft policy’s public release. Researchers argue that industry lobbying behind closed doors has successfully delayed and weakened the government’s last two policies aimed at curbing leading causes of death in the country. Now, many fear history is repeating. 

Food industry association the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) submitted written inputs on warning or “front of package” labels to the National Health Department in August, documents obtained by Maverick Citizen show.

The CGCSA’s Food Safety Initiative Executive, Matlou Setati, says the industry body has, however, not seen the proposed legislation. She refused to share the CGCSA’s submission with Maverick Citizen

Lobbying — or directly or indirectly communicating with public officials to influence decision-making — isn’t illegal in South Africa. It is largely unregulated, which political analyst Ralph Mathekga has argued is a rising threat to South Africa’s democracy. 

Activists are now accusing the CGCSA of acting unethically and calling on the National Health Department to set aside submissions on proposed food warning labels made before the policy is open for public comment. Researchers say the food industry influenced previous salt and sugar regulations before the policymaking process was open to the public. Activists allege that the industry is now using this same tactic to prevent legislation that would likely reduce processed food sales.

Health department promised industry a formal response to high-level questions on yet unreleased policy

Industry associations like the CGCSA play important roles in lobbying on behalf of their powerful members. Associations foster relationships with policymakers with whom they lobby, collate policy submissions and develop key messaging. (Graphic: Safura Abdool Karim, Priceless, 2020)

The National Health Department first proposed new food labels in 2014 to curb sales of foods high in substances like salt, sugar and saturated fat. In Chile, legislation like this helped to reduce purchases of drinks high in sugar, salt, saturated fat or calories, by almost a quarter alongside other policies, 2020 research published in the journal PLOS Medicine found.

South Africa’s proposed legislation languished because, until 2021, the country lacked the local research needed to flesh out many of the policy’s details, chief among them what should be on warning labels and what they should look like.  

Researchers looked at what we eat and what’s killing us in South Africa to identify three things to watch out for in future warning label: Sugar, saturated fat and salt. They also suggested warning labels flag artificial sweeteners, whose long-term effects are unknown. When South Africans were given options about what labels should look like, they chose these black and white triangles, University of Limpopo lecturer Makoma Bopape found. (Graphic: Supplied by the researchers)

The draft policy has now been revised following a series of local studies presented publicly as part of a health department webinar on 15 April 2021. By this time, a CGCSA technical working group had already begun collecting inputs that were ultimately delivered to the National Health Department in August. The council says it did not receive early access to the research.

“As the food and non-alcoholic beverage industry will be expected to implement the front of package labelling on many of their products, views on the Department of Health presented research were discussed at technical working group meetings,” Setati said. “These views were shared with the Department of Health.”

By August, the CGCSA’s Food Safety Initiative had also sent a letter to the National Health Department’s Food Control Division, requesting feedback on high-level questions raised by members on proposed new food labels. 

The National Department of Health acknowledged receipt of both the written submission and letter, according to Setati and CGCSA documents. The department’s Food Control Division also promised to provide a formal response to the CGCSA’s questions.

The National Health Department did not respond to Maverick Citizen’s requests for comment.

Activists slam health department over ‘preferential treatment’ of industry

How does industry shape what you eat? Find out in just two minutes.

Nzama Mbalati is the head of the civil society coalition, the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala), which has publically supported food warning labels. Mbalati says while it’s not illegal for the industry to lobby the government ahead of a draft policy’s release, it does disparage the public participation process. Heala has labelled the CGCSA’s behaviour as “unethical”.

“The public equally deserves a fair chance to hear its voice as the regulation directly impacts us,” he says. “This action shows an apparent conflict of interests by giving differential treatment to the industry while trampling on the rights of other interested parties who would also like to equally have a fair chance to comment on the draft regulation.”

The CGCSA’s Setati disagrees and says she does not believe that the council acted unethically and did not unduly influence the process or subvert public participation.  

“Any member of the public, including those that form part of the industry, can share their views and feedback to government on information presented publicly by the government at any time,” she argues. “The purpose of presenting the public webinar was to share this information with affected and interested stakeholders.”

Heala has called for the National Health Department to urgently publish the draft food label regulations to allow for the public participation process to begin.

South Africa’s 2014 Public Administration Management Act says government institutions must encourage public participation in policymaking, in part by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information. 

Draft salt regulations were leaked to industry and weakened

Many fruit juices and dairy drinks that the industry fought to exempt from the Health Promotion Levy would likely come with warning labels if these thresholds are adopted.

Safura Abdool Karim is a former researcher at the South African Medical Research Council and Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science (Priceless SA). Speaking to Maverick Citizen in October, she said the industry uses three broad strategies to shape South African health policy: Delay the policy, dilute or weaken the policy, or delegitimise the scientific evidence base on which policies are formed. 

In South Africa, industry pushback delayed the introduction of regulations to curb excess salt and sugar consumption (also known as the Health Promotion Act) by about two years, Priceless SA founding director Karen Hofman told Maverick Citizen in October 2021. 

Abdool Karim’s work found that industry had the most influence on both policies before they were released for public comment. 

“In the instance of the sodium restrictions, what we observed is that a draft regulation was circulated to industry actors,” explained Abdool Karim, speaking to Maverick Citizen in October. “They gave input on that that ultimately diluted the policy … so it allowed more sodium in products, changed the way some products were categorised and changed the timeline for implementation.”

Industry tried to dilute South African restrictions on salt policy once again when the policy was opened for public comment but was unsuccessful, Abdool Karim said. National Treasury slashed its initially proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages by half, after consulting beverage and sugar producers, shows 2021 research published in the journal Obesity Reviews

Industry likely to fight for weaker, voluntary labelling

South Africa’s Health Promotion Levy also excluded categories of drinks like 100% fruit juices and sweetened dairy drinks that will be hit with warning labels if the National Department of Health adopts guidelines for labels proposed by local researchers. 

“Industry is very interested in front-of-package labelling and has its ideas of what should be in the policy,” she continued. “They don’t support the idea of a warning label, they think that the front-of-pack labels should be voluntary and that it should be a traffic light.”

A WHO report found that while “traffic light” labels are better than nothing, multiple studies have shown they do little to stop people buying bad food. In contrast, the type of warning label proposed by South African researchers has been shown to reduce people’s willingness to buy unhealthy food and to influence people to make healthier purchases. 

“The reasons it’s so problematic that they exert this influence prior to the public comment period is because they’re exerting influence through channels that only they have access to,” Karim Abdool said. “In the public commenting period … there’s a multiplicity of voices in the room … and, most importantly, public health interests are represented in that fora.” 

She concluded: “In these sort of backdoor channels, it’s just industry and decision-makers.” DM/MC

Full disclosure: Laura López González completed a month-long editing consultancy with Heala in 2021.


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