Food labelling regulations – what next?

The so-called ‘Phase 2’ of the new South African labelling regulations is now at the fine-tuning stage, prior to publication as a draft for comment. Rumour has it that it will incorporate the existing provisions of the Phase 1 R146 regulations, which have been law since March 2012, and make provision for the approval of health and nutrition claims for foodstuffs. This means that all food labelling regulations falling under the Department of Health will be incorporated into a single piece of legislation.

Details of Phase 2 are not known, but it is certain to incorporate a provision for nutrient profiling as a ‘screening mechanism’ to identify products which will be allowed to carry claims. The proposed format for nutrient profiling is already quite clear, with the draft model being available on the Department of Health’s website: This may not necessarily be the exact final product that will become law, but it gives a clear indication that the government is going to crack down on companies who manufacture products of poor nutritional quality and attempt to improve their marketability by boosting them with small quantities of micronutrients.

According to the Department of Health’s website, “Nutrient profiling of foods is defined as 'the science of ranking foods based on their nutrient composition'. Nutrient profiles aim to benefit both the consumer and food manufacturers by ensuring that claims do not mask the overall nutrient content of food products, and by encouraging food manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their products. The ultimate goal is that a nutrient profile system will help consumers to make healthier food choices.”

The calculation used to determine the eligibility of individual products to carry claims, puts a negative spin on products with a high kilojoule content and high levels of sugar, saturated fat and sodium, but allows these to be partially offset by the presence of fruit, nuts and high levels of protein and fibre. It is likely that the nutrient profiling scheme will be adopted in a big way within the food industry, not only for its original claim eligibility screening purpose, but also as a general purpose tool for assessing the nutritional quality of both new and existing products. What is still an unknown quantity is the proposed mechanism for approval of the claims themselves, and it is unclear if a local model will be proposed or if South Africa will adopt an existing process such as the one used by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) which, incidentally, is extremely demanding in its criteria.

So a challenging time lies ahead for food companies who wish to make health and nutrition claims for their products, and it is possible that some of the products that currently carry claims may even have to remove them if the product itself is of insufficient broad-based nutritional quality.

Companies should keep their eyes and ears open for the publication of the Phase 2 proposals, and if necessary, make formal comments on the proposals. It is a complex area and those companies with limited technical knowledge in this field should obtain expert advice regarding the way forward.