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Food labels: What Woolworths doesn’t want you to know

| Legislation

The National Consumer Commission (NCC) has told Health24 that Woolworths was unable to determine the number of ice cream and sorbet products affected by a peanut allergen labelling blunder.

Peanut allergy is of particular significance to public health because it is one of the most common food allergies – it is a lifelong allergy that can cause severe reactions and seems to be on the increase in South Africa.

Although there are no official South African statistics, it is believed that about 1-2% of people have a peanut allergy with at least one in 50 children affected.

Although Woolworths, which recorded a 13.5% rise in food sales for the year ended 28 June 2015, was proactive in recalling the ice cream and sorbet products – which were not labelled with the necessary peanut allergen warnings – they were not forthcoming about finer details.

A product labelling nightmare

Health24’s sister site Fin24 reported that on the heels of the allergy labelling mishap, Woolworths took another knock after it was revealed that the company is also part of an industry-wide investigation by the NCC into labelling and trade descriptions, following false labelling allegations against the retail giant.

“The disclosure of information is a fundamental consumer right that allows consumers to make informed decisions about the products they buy,” NCC spokesperson Trevor Hattingh told Health24.

“In this particular matter the absence of certain product information places consumers with peanut allergies at risk.”

The NCC, which has a legal obligation in terms of section 60 of the Consumer Protection Act to ensure that any unsafe or potentially harmful products are effectively removed from the marketplace, has been monitoring the progress made by Woolworths.

It requested additional information to assist it in monitoring the recall.

Number of units under the spotlight

“This includes information about the total number of affected units, whether Woolworths received any complaints about the product in relation to the recall, whether a call centre had been established to deal with complaints, whether the recalled units will be destroyed or rectified, as well as the frequency of consumer communication on the part of Woolworths,” said Hattingh.

He said, although the NCC requested information about the total number of affected units, this was not provided. “Woolworths indicated that it is unable to determine the exact number of affected units due to inconsistencies in the labelling of the product.”

However, Woolworths said is has successfully completed the removal and recall of the 12 ice cream and sorbet products.

The retailer declined to respond to Health24’s questions pertaining to the number of units with inconsistent allergen labelling and also did not indicate the number of units it managed to recover.

“The packaging error has been corrected by applying a sticker in the short term. A sticker application will be used to prevent the unnecessary, wasteful destruction of the existing packaging. As soon as the existing packaging is depleted, the correct information will be printed on the packaging,” said Woolworths head of corporate communications Kirsten Hewett.

The products are expected to be back on the shelves in the next few weeks.

Types of product recalls

Hattingh explained that there are two types of product recalls.

A voluntary recall is when a supplier proactively initiates a product recall after finding that in the interest of protecting consumers it should remove a product from the marketplace. The other type of recall is based on the findings of an investigation by the NCC.

He said the National Consumer Tribunal (NCT) may rule that a fine or penalty be imposed on a supplier or a producer when a product recall is implemented after an investigation by the NCC found that goods were unsafe or potentially harmful to consumers.

“The NCC would in this regard refer its investigation findings and recommendations to the NCT to make a ruling.”

Taking a conservative approach

Technical consultant to the food industry Nigel Sunley told Health24 he thinks Woolworths handled the product recall well.

“They have taken a very conservative approach which is going to cost them a significant amount of money, but which ensures that consumers are not put at risk.

“I can fully understand that it is simply not possible to establish how many units are affected in view of the complexity of the distribution systems involved”, he said.

Consumer activist Dr Harris Steinman told Health24 that it may not always be precise and can be very costly for companies to check the number of units involved in a product recall.

“If a company finds that a product may have low or high levels of an allergen in one of its products, suggesting a real or potential contamination, it may –to protect its brand – decide to withdraw the product completely instead of trying to decide on the extent of units involved,” he said.

Best to remove all units

Steinman said it is recommended that companies remove all units from the marketplace, but this depended on the facts specific to that product because they vary from product to product.

“If I as a company find that one of five random samples drawn from stores contains egg or peanut, I would quickly remove all units of that product.”

He said even if only one of 100 units, or one of 10 000 units of the product contains peanut, the risk would be too great to take a chance and “I would make the decision to simply remove all units.

“The fact that Woolworths voluntarily removed the products in question from the shelves is a good thing,” said brand reputation management adviser and Fin24 columnist Solly Moeng.

If they appear to refuse answering questions, he said it could be that they do not have an answer as they might still be investigating the incident. “Nevertheless,  I [believe] they need to communicate better, even when stuck.”

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