Food and the law

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It is important for every person to have at least some basic knowledge on food laws and food safety.

Rights: MIRIAM TOSE MAJOME

How safe is the food we buy from establishments that sell food like supermarkets, restaurants and other markets?

What recourse is available in the event of food poisoning? Who is liable and the extent of the liability?

There is indeed a myriad of laws pertaining to food, the aim being to ensure food safety.

There are laws pertaining to its production, handling, sale and consumption.

Good health is the lifeblood of any nation, so food safety laws need to be tightly controlled. Local statistics are not available, but in 2015, the World Health Organisation estimated that at least 351 000 people die annually from food poisoning related deaths globally.

Presently, there is a typhoid outbreak in the country. This is attributable to poor hygiene and poor sanitation standards, which lead to the ingestion of contaminated food and liquids.

The country also routinely battles cholera and other food and water-borne epidemics.

Poor hygiene methods by individuals and a general deterioration of sanitation standards has caused this as well as poor government policies and lax implementation of the existing laws.

In practice, things are just not as they ought to be.

Law enforcement agencies and local authorities have allowed standards to decline even where they can act to stop the rot.

Practising good hygiene and implementing laws does not require foreign currency.

They turn a blind eye when raw and cooked meat of dubious origin or quality is sold openly on street pavements.
Backyard restaurants and alley canteens have sprouted everywhere and patrons do not seem interested in anything other than the price of the meal.

The origin and standard of the ingredients or the quality of food handling is not important.

When a full plate of sadza and meat, with all the trimmings, costs only $1, it should raise suspicion.

Food does not have to be poisonous for it to be unfit for human consumption.

The law

The Food and Food Standards Act (Chapter 15:04) provides for the sale, importation and manufacture for sale of food in a pure state The Act aims to prohibit the sale, importation and manufacture for sale of food that is unsafe and to provide for the fixing of standards relating to food and related matters.

Liability for food poisoning section 5(1)

Sellers of food are liable for negative consequences that ensue from selling food that is not fit for human consumption.

Consumption of unfit food could result in sickness and the sellers will be criminally liable.

Not only can damages be claimed but criminal charges can also be laid against the selling establishment or person.

No person shall sell, import or manufacture for sale any food that is adulterated, falsely described or unwholesome or unfit for human consumption.

Any person, who contravenes this, will be guilty of a criminal offence and will be liable to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years.

Determining unfitness

Food is considered unsafe if it is unacceptable for its intended use.

The food may have deteriorated or have been contaminated by external matter. Even non-toxic substances, such as water or moisture can contaminate food and render it unacceptable and unfit for human consumption.

Even other harmless food matter can contaminate food and render it unacceptable and unfit for consumption.

In 2013, Europe was rocked by the horsemeat scandal. Meat sold and marketed as beef was found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horsemeat.

It is actually very common in the food industry worldwide to mix different types of meat with other undeclared meats or other substances and sell it as a specific meat type.

If a sample of food is found to be unsafe, the entire batch or consignment of the same class or description shall be presumed to be unsafe unless proved otherwise by expert assessment. The entire batch should be destroyed.

Contaminated food

If food contains or is mixed with or diluted with any substance or ingredient that was not meant to be combined with it such as unauthorised additives or extractions.

Also, if the food is subjected to any process or treatment, which negatively affects its nature or quality, it should not be sold or consumed.

If food fails to comply with any prescribed standards, it is automatically deemed unsafe and should not be sold or consumed.

If it contains or has been added to or mixed with any substance or ingredient in proportion or higher than what is prescribed or if it contains any prohibited substance or hazardous ingredient, it should not be sold or consumed.
It has become very common in the food industry to infuse soya in food products particularly meat.

It is illegal to alter the permissible quantities.

Companies can be overdriven by the profit motive to maintain legal limits and often expose consumers to unwitting danger.

In 2008, a Chinese infant milk formula company was convicted for killing six children and harming 300 000 others by adding melamine to the formula.

Melamine boosts the protein content, allowing for more dilution leading to increased volumes and sales.

False labelling

It is an offence to sell unauthorised imitations of food or sell it under the name of other food, which closely resembles it with the intention to deceive customers.

Packaging, which bears any description or image, which is incorrect or misleading regarding the nature, substance or quality of the food is prohibited.

Food labels should not misrepresent pertaining the origin, age or place of production of the food. For example, labelling food as “halaal”, “natural” or “homemade” amongst other popular ruses is prohibited.

It is a serious offence to conceal or deface labels pertaining to the age or expiration dates — a common practice by unscrupulous retailers.

Selling expired food, even if it has not decayed, even under discount sales and promotions, is prohibited.

Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on enquiries@legalpractitioners.org

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