Maverick Citizen

Food Justice


More needs to be done to ensure access to safe and nutritious foodstuff

The World Health Organization marks World Food Safety Day on Tuesday, 7 June, and it’s clear that more still needs to be done in this crucial area.

“Foodborne diseases affect one in 10 people worldwide each year. There are over 200 of these diseases – some mild, but others deadly. This year’s theme, ‘Safer food, better health’, highlights the role that safe, nutritional food plays in ensuring human health and wellbeing and calls for a set of specific actions to make food safer,” says the World Health Organization (WHO), as it marks World Food Safety Day today. It goes on to highlight five key facts that influence food safety:

  • Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked.
  • An estimated 600 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years.
  • $110-billion are lost each year in productivity and medical expenses resulting from unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Children under the age of five carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year.
  • Foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining healthcare systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade.

With rising food prices, people are increasingly desperate to eat anything within the means of what they can afford and this has resulted in more cases of people eating expired and unregulated food. This is particularly common in areas where the only source of food is spaza shops, but also where people, as a result of unemployment and bare kitchen cupboards, are resorting to eating anything that will make them feel “full”. There have been reports of children in the Eastern Cape eating wild plants, and in the Northern Cape eating river sand out of desperate hunger.  

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In a webinar last Tuesday, Mervyn Abrahams, the programmes director at the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group, said the current household basket now costs R4,609.89 – an increase of R67 from April 2022 and a R472 increase over the past year. Fifty percent of South Africans earn the minimum wage (about R3,700 monthly) or less, meaning the food basket costs more than most South Africans earn.  

“The survival strategy that most people tell us they are employing at the moment is … cutting back on their food consumption … switching to cheaper food … to cheaper cuts of meat and these are less nutritious,” said Abrahams.  

Food safety also extends to proper labelling of foodstuffs so that consumers know the nutritional content of the food they are buying. For health reasons, it is particularly important for people who suffer from non-communicable diseases like hypertension and diabetes to know the sugar and salt content of the foods they eat.  

Earlier this year, we published an article discussing the importance of front-of-package labelling (FOPL). This also speaks to issues of food justice in that ultraprocessed foods fill our supermarket shelves and have been found to cause non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity. 

MEC for community safety Faith Nonhlanhla Mazibuko leads the confiscation of expired goods, medicine and tobacco products in a spaza shop in Winnie Mandela, Thembisa. (Photo: ER Lombard / Gallo Images)

In an article discussing the importance of FOPL, journalist Laura López González  says: “New research suggests that nearly 80% of packaged foods on major supermarket shelves may be ultraprocessed: Cheap food loaded with fat, salt and sugar that allow companies to turn big profits — at your expense. Products like these, including possibly the chemicals in them, are fuelling new levels of death and disease with almost no regulation to stand in their way.” 

While some people may not pay food safety too much mind, there have been instances where a lack of food safety has resulted in fatalities. 

In 2017/18, South Africa experienced a listeriosis outbreak which resulted in the deaths of 218 people who ate contaminated products from Tiger Brands, which had not followed the required safety measures to ensure their processed meat products were safe. This outbreak was reported to be the largest that had occurred in the world and brought into question whether the Department of Health was doing enough to ensure safety standards in food.  

The government committed to strengthening the National Health Laboratory Service’s food testing capacity in order to prevent such an outbreak in the future. However, one thing that the undertaking failed to address was how the food testing would be carried out on food products transported from outside South Africa.  

In 2021, 20 million KOO and Hugo’s canned food products, manufactured by Tiger Brands, had to be recalled after it was found that the cans were defective.

“A leak in a can presents a risk of secondary microbial contamination after the canned products are despatched into the marketplace. Where such contamination occurs, it will present a low probability of illness and injury if the contaminated product is consumed,” Tiger Brands said then. 

South Africa’s National Department of Health says: “The National Department of Health requires that all foodstuffs shall be safe for human consumption in terms of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act, 1972 (FCD Act). The [FCD Act] addresses the manufacture, labelling, sale and importation of foodstuffs.” 

Section 27 of the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to have access to sufficient food; however, consumers are still vulnerable to lapses in safety precautions, the economic pressures that come with poverty and unemployment, as well as making ill-advised decisions like opting for ultraprocessed food rather than healthier whole foods.  

It is important that we advocate access to safe and nutritious food that goes through the necessary regulatory standards, that food prices, particularly of staple foods, do not continue to be out of reach of the poor and that foods that are likely to result in non-communicable diseases are monitored more closely. DM/MC


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