The proliferation of unregulated spaza or informal shops in South Africa has raised concerns about fake foods within these establishments. Fake foods, also known as counterfeit or adulterated foods, are products that are intentionally misrepresented or tampered with, posing significant risks to public health and safety.
Fake foods encompass a range of deceptive practices, including the adulteration, mislabelling, or counterfeiting of food products. These practices are driven by unscrupulous individuals seeking financial gain at the expense of consumer wellbeing. Examples of fake foods include diluted or contaminated beverages, counterfeit alcoholic beverages, counterfeit spices, and falsely labelled expired or low-quality food items.
The dangers of fake foods
Although unregulated spaza shops provide convenience and accessibility to township and rural communities, they often lack proper oversight and regulation. This creates an environment where unethical shop owners may take advantage of lax monitoring and sell fake foods without consequence.
Consuming fake foods can have severe consequences on public health. Contaminated or adulterated products may contain harmful substances, such as toxic chemicals, allergens, or unsanitary ingredients. These pose immediate risks, including food poisoning, allergic reactions and long-term health complications.
Limited resources and knowledge among consumers further exacerbate the problem, as they need to be aware of the risks of purchasing these products. This is worsened by the fact that generally, spaza shops are located in areas with a high disease burden, high poverty rates and where people do not have adequate medical care.
To address the issue of fake foods in unregulated spaza shops, it is essential to highlight relevant regulations that play a crucial role in ensuring food safety and proper labelling:
- South African Regulation R638 of 2018 for Food Premises: This regulation sets out the requirements for food premises, including spaza shops, to maintain hygiene standards, implement food safety practices, and undergo regular inspections. Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs) play a vital role in enforcing these regulations by conducting inspections, providing guidance to shop owners, and taking appropriate action against those found selling fake foods. Importantly, this regulation also specifies that the persons responsible for food premises should receive accredited food safety training. It came about due to the listeriosis crisis in South Africa. The specific requirement was introduced to compel food business owners to familiarise themselves with the risks posed by food products on consumer health; sadly, only a few municipal inspectors enforce this crucial requirement before granting a food trading permit/certificate of acceptability to trade;
- South African Regulation R146 of 2010 for Food Labelling: This regulation governs the proper labelling of food products, ensuring that consumers have accurate information about the contents, nutritional value, and expiry dates. Compliance with this regulation helps consumers make informed choices and reduces the risk of purchasing counterfeit or falsely labelled products; and
- The South African Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 provides legal safeguards for consumers, including the right to safe and quality goods. Consumers should know their rights and take precautions to ensure their safety when purchasing food products, and actively assert their rights by checking labels, reporting suspicious products or practices to relevant authorities, and supporting reputable suppliers. Additionally, counterfeit foods may lack essential nutrients, leading to malnutrition or inadequate dietary intake.
The responsibilities of environmental health practitioners?
Department Notice R943 of 2013, issued by the Department of Health following the National Health Act 61 of 2003, sets out the norms and standards for Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs) to manage food safety regulation, among other duties.
The notice provides comprehensive guidelines for EHPs to carry out their duties effectively in ensuring that food premises comply with food safety regulations and that expired products are removed from the market. The norms and standards outlined in the notice cover various aspects of food safety regulation, including;
- Requirements for food premises, including design, construction, and maintenance standards. This ensures that premises are hygienic and food is prepared, stored, and handled safely;
- EHPs must ensure that food premises have adequate food safety management systems;
- The notice outlines the frequency of inspections required for different types of food premises. EHPs must carry out regular inspections to monitor compliance with food safety regulations; and
- EHPs can take enforcement action against non-compliant food premises, including issuing notices, closing premises, or, working with law enforcement officials, prosecuting offenders. In addition, the notice provides guidelines for the regulation of expired products. EHPs must monitor the market for expired products and take appropriate action to remove them from circulation. This includes working with manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to ensure that expired products are recalled and destroyed.
What can be done to empower communities for safer consumption?
- Community awareness campaigns should educate consumers about the risks of fake foods. This includes disseminating information on identifying counterfeit products, reading labels, and understanding food safety practices;
- Advocacy efforts should be made to encourage government bodies to implement stricter regulations and monitoring mechanisms for spaza shops. This includes regular inspections, licensing requirements, and penalties for those found selling fake foods;
- Encouraging community members to report suspicious activities or products they encounter in spaza shops is crucial. Establishing channels for reporting to relevant authorities can help initiate investigations and take appropriate action against unscrupulous shop owners;
- Communities can form consumer groups or cooperatives to collectively purchase from reputable suppliers or establish partnerships with trusted local producers. This ensures a reliable supply chain and reduces reliance on unregulated spaza shops; and
- Building relationships with local authorities and law enforcement agencies can foster collaboration in combating the sale of fake foods. Encouraging regular dialogues and sharing information can help address the issue effectively.
The presence of fake foods in unregulated spaza shops poses significant risks to public health and safety in South Africa. Community involvement and collaboration with environmental health practitioners can help ensure that food sold in spaza shops is safe and genuine. The government also needs to consider innovative ways to ensure that although there is a dire shortage of EHPs, these spaza shops can be inspected for compliance as they affect the poorest citizens of South Africa. DM