Health officials 'still can't enforce consumer laws'
South Africa has to contend with an obesity epidemic, with 75% of women above the age of 30 being overweight.
Health experts have raised questions as to whether new food labelling legislation, aimed at giving consumers information about the products they eat, is as effective as it should be.
The food labelling laws came into effect in March.
But dietician and consultant Jane Badham said there were major problems with enforcing the legislation.
"We are in situation in which the Health Department makes good laws but, once again, where is the enforcement?" Badham asks.
Dietician Moira Byers agrees.
"On the one hand many manufacturers have complied at great cost and passed these costs on to the consumer; and on the other hand many products continue to make non-scientific claims without evidence, which mislead and confuse consumers."
Examples of an outlawed claim is the phrase "95% fat free".
"This is because if a food has 5% fat, it is actually not fat free," Byers said.
The laws have benefited the consumer by offering more information about a product, said food consultant Norah-Ann Hayes. But many dieticians don't agree, saying the non- compliance by smaller companies and a lack of enforcement affect consumers.
A look at supermarket shelves show that some products get away with vague ingredient lists, unproven claims such as "less than 2% fat" and outlawed words such as "natural", "wholesome" and "healthy".
"Enforcement by the health department is so poor that consumers remain unprotected," said Badham.
Hayes said on a positive note the laws had resulted in port officials being much stricter about products imported into the country.
She has "not heard of health officials taking products" off the shelves, but said "retailers have become stricter on ensuring that products listed in their stores are correctly labelled. This has led to far more enforcement than could have been possible with only the Department of Health involved."
Health Department spokesman Joe Maila said consumers who want to complain about incorrect food labelling can approach municipal environmental health practitioners.
But he admitted there were "challenges related to the availability of sufficient resources to address compliance, monitoring and enforcement of legislation, including as it relates to the labelling regulations".