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R3337 food labelling regulation changes delayed as health department drags feet in review process

R3337 food labelling regulation changes delayed as health department drags feet in review process
Warning labels on unhealthy foods are already mandatory in countries such as Chile, Mexico, Jamaica, Peru, Uruguay. Octagonal warning labels were preferred by countries in Central America and the Caribbean. (Images: Healthy Caribbean Coalition)

Almost six months after the closing of the public comment period on potentially game-changing food labelling regulations in South Africa, the National Department of Health says it has not yet started the review process, making it ‘difficult to determine the timeframe when the final regulations will be in place’.

In 2023, the National Department of Health published a draft regulation imposing stringent new restrictions on food labelling, marketing, and health claims for packaged foods and drinks. The purpose of the regulation, called R3337, is to give consumers more accurate information about the products they are buying, with the intent that they make healthier food choices.

In 2014, the health department had proposed a new labelling regulation, which was shot down internally for reasons that remain obscure, according to a former health department employee. Ten years on, the newest attempt to update these regulations — this time with a scientifically rigorous basis (which 2014’s allegedly lacked) — seems mired in bureaucracy.

In late January, Daily Maverick asked the health department for a second update on the review process of comments submitted during the public consultation period for R3337, which ended on 21 September 2023.

“We are still in the process of capturing, reconciling, collating and verifying all comments from each stakeholder,” Department of Health spokesperson Foster Mohale told Daily Maverick in an email, “before we can commence the review process”. (This was much the same as Mohale’s reply to Daily Maverick in November.)

Mohale said that the process had been delayed by the health department’s extension of the deadline for public comments, which “has set us back by about six months and added to the rigour and accuracy with which [sic] we need to apply to the consideration of every comment, substantive or not, that has been submitted”.

The Department had received both “substantive” and “general” comments, Mohale said, which in some cases were more than 250 pages each. He said so far (as of early February) they had only completed the collation and verification process for about one-third of the comments received (71 of the “substantive” comments and 277 individual non-substantive comments). The Department of Health has also received “a very large volume of non-substantive comments,” meaning comments in support of or against the draft regulations.

Front-of-pack labelling

One of the main features of R3337 is a set of mandatory black-and-white triangular warning labels, to appear on the front of packaged foods that are high in added sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and artificial sweeteners.

These ingredients are known to increase the risks of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes (the second biggest killer in South Africa, after tuberculosis), cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The regulations also stipulate restrictions on food companies’ marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children, a measure that the World Health Organization has been advocating for since 2010.

R3337 food labelling

Draft regulations on unhealthy foods in South Africa include a proposed warning label on all packaged foods containing high levels of ‘nutrients of concern’, such as sugar, unhealthy fats, salt, and artificial sweeteners. The regulations also propose restrictions on “health” claims and the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
(Source: Government Gazette No. 47965, 31 January 2023)

Since then, other countries around the world have hastened the strengthening of their own food regulations — especially in the area of food labelling, to enable greater transparency about the health impacts of ingredients such as salt, sugar, and fat. This in an effort to try and reduce the incidence of these non-communicable diseases, which are responsible for nearly three-quarters (74%) of all deaths globally. Of these, more than three-quarters (77%) are in low- and middle-income countries.

Given the implications of the mandatory new labelling requirements — that all food and drink producers would have to redesign and manufacture new packaging to be compliant — it is expected that the “substantive” comments include strenuous objections to the draft regulations from the food and beverage industry.

The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa previously declined to discuss their submission on R3337 with Daily Maverick because they were “still involved in discussions with the department’s other stakeholders” on the draft regulation, and said it was “still too premature to comment”.

Regulation development

The scientific basis for the new regulations was developed by a South African research working group led by Professor Rina Swart, principal investigator and nutrition lead at the University of the Western Cape’s Center of Excellence for Food Security, along with former UWC colleague Dr Tamryn Frank, Dr Makoma Bopape of the University of Limpopo, and Dr Safura Abdool-Karim of the University of the Witwatersrand.

The group developed and tested the front-of-pack warning label approach used for R3337, using international evidence-based research, with oversight by an independent advisory committee including nutrition, health, behavioural science and communication experts.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Professor Rina Swart: Food labelling a potent weapon in the fight to improve public health

The public comment period for R3337 closed on 21 September 2023. Three months ago the NDOH said it hoped that the final regulation would be legislated by the end of the 2024 financial year.

However, it told Daily Maverick that “as previously explained… it still remains difficult to determine the timeframe when the final regulations would be in place, as based on some of the comments received, the preliminary review has shown that we would still need to engage with a number of stakeholders to conduct further consultations/obtain clarity and also clarify the rationale for certain provisions. This latter aspect is also a prerequisite of the Presidency-led Socio-Economic Impact Assessment Study that is mandatory for these Regulations.”

Daily Maverick asked the health department what precisely that impact assessment meant, practically — its purpose, how it is executed, how long it would take — but had not received a reply at the time of publication. DM

Adèle Sulcas is a writer and adviser for Daily Maverick’s Food Justice project, and (disclosure) a consultant writer for the World Health Organization. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gled Shonta says:

    How surprising. The food industry is throwing its not insignificant weight at this well intentioned move to provide proper information to consumers.
    This process will be dragged out and watered down as much as industry can lever.
    Just as always has been.
    No wonder SA has some of the highest rates of both obesity, NCD, childhood stunting. Its not only because of poverty but also because people think cheap tasty junk is actually food.

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