Supplement manufacturers are getting away with dangerous false claims.
Food fraud is alive and well in South Africa, where consumers are “getting screwed” by manufacturers all over the show – and nobody is taking action.
It’s happening with fish in restaurants, with meat, biltong, spices, chocolate, honey and – big ones – breakfast cereals and sport supplements.
This was the startling message from respected consumer activist, Dr Harris Steinman at a major food conference in the Mother City recently.
Steinman, who is director of the Cape Town-based Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services (Facts) has featured in numerous Noseweek reports exposing false advertising and fake remedies. (See noses 89; 90; 105; 111; 115; 118; 143; 160; 185 &188.) For his pains, he is currently facing a R2-million defamation lawsuit by sport supplement company Ultimate Sports Nutrition (USN), for calling USN owner Albie Geldenhuys a “liar” and a “scam artist”. He’s also being sued for claiming that the advertisements put out by the Medical Nutrition Institute (MNI) for their supplement AntaGolin bordered on being “scams”. The supplement is claimed to encourage weight loss by fighting insulin resistance in the body. These cases have yet to be decided.
Speaking during the session Food Fraud, Pseudoscience and Ethics, at the 22nd Biennial International Congress of SAAFoST (The SA Association for Food Science and Technology – and other Professionals serving the food and allied industries), Steinman cited examples of food fraud taking place in South Africa and abroad.
Bottled water, he said, is one of the biggest scams around. In SA there are regulations governing bottled water, but there is no policing taking place.
According to Steinman, food fraud is “a collective term used to encompass substitutions, additions, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients, or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product, for economic gain.”
South Africans had a major dose of food fraud in 2013 when researchers found “fraudulent meat products” – including soya or donkey, goat and water buffalo meat – in various minced meat, sausage, dried meat and burger patty products across the country.
But, said Steinman, it’s an ongoing problem and runs much wider afield than the much-publicised meat saga.
Historically, he said, food fraud has been going on for centuries: In the 1800s, adulteration of food was widespread, with bakers cutting their flour with alum, chalk, plaster or sawdust to make it heavier, brewers adding strychnine to beer and confectioners using lead, copper or mercury salts to brighten the colours of sweets. In 2005 there was the dog food scandal and infant milk formula being contaminated with melamine; in 2007, it emerged that fertilizer with dangerous levels of heavy metals cadmium, arsenic and lead had led to farm produce being similarly contaminated (noses 93 & 94); and in 2005, 2007 and again in 2014, there was the saga of the Sudan Red 1 Dye (considered both genotoxic and carcinogenic) being used in chilli spices.
Another, lesser-known food fraud came in 2012, when cocoa leaf tea was marketed in boxes similar to normal teas, as a “100 percent natural caffeine-free tea, very high in nutrients and a connoisseur’s favourite. This pleasant tasting tea revitalizes, restores and energises. It balances mood, curbs appetite, is detoxifying and helps digestive processes.”
Said Steinman: “Those leaves actually contain cocaine!”
Food fraud encompasses all the above plus falsely labelling (for example incorrect information about expiry dates or origin); grey market production/theft/diversion (sale of excess unreported product); and counterfeiting (copying popular foods without adhering to accepted safety measures).
More recent examples of food fraud cited by Steinman include a 2011 study of fish being served in 215 restaurants which found that 21 percent of species served were falsely labelled. “Hake was hake but Kingklip and other expensive fish were not what menus said they were.”
When the restaurants were revisited four years later to see if there had been improvements, it was found that 18 percent of species were wrongly labelled. In 2016 a study of labelling of crustaceans in restaurants found that 31 percent were misrepresented.
A number of samples of buffalo mozzarella were tested and found not to be made of buffalo milk, he added.
In 2015, when his organisation was asked to test banana bread from a bakery in Cape Town famous for its gluten-free, wheat-free and banting products, “we tested it and it was not gluten free, in fact it had high levels of gluten and wheat”.
In October 2016 he was asked to test some “coconut rolls” which were, in fact, ordinary wheat rolls. The owner was offended when a consumer journalist wrote about this food fraud, and threatened legal action. Steinman began testing samples every month after that – and the products were still full of wheat and gluten.
“We reported them to the Department of Health in October last year. Today, they are still trading unhindered, selling gluten-containing products to people who are meant to avoid gluten, and to banters. That’s when things go horribly wrong,” he said.
In 2015, a chocolatier in Stellenbosch brought out a chocolate which was “low fat, low carb, banting and paleo”. We were asked to test it. As scientists, we know you can’t have chocolate without fat. It is pseudoscience. The chocolates contained high levels of fat – and sugar!”
In August, the bottled water brand Poland Spring Water (whose parent company is Nestlé Waters North America) was smacked with a class-action lawsuit for a “colossal fraud” for claiming that its bottled water contained “100 percent natural spring water” that is “proudly from Maine” when in fact the company was bottling common groundwater.
“Bottled water is one of the biggest scams. It is a massive market, and almost half of all bottled water is taken directly from a tap. What’s frightening is that we know virtually nothing about what’s happening in South Africa with bottled water. Zilch.”
In his presentation, the often jocular Steinman showed a slide of two jars of honey available at a major retailer. The colour of the honey differs greatly between the two bottles. “Look at the label … it says made in South Africa, Zambia and Malaysia. The one is pure syrup,” said Steinman.
Then there were the “steak and kidney-flavoured pies” marketed by a company called Mighty Pies. “Look at the ingredients. It’s actually chicken in these pies. These are steak-flavoured chicken pies!”
Another minefield is breakfast cereals, which, according to Steinman, excel in making prohibited declarations about what’s in their products.
“Many cereals are now adding complementary medicine to their products. Is this a food or a complementary medicine? Who is regulating all this? Who cares?”
According to Steinman, “we work in an environment where everything that passes your lips is supposed to be regulated either as a food or as a drug.
“About 80 percent of the so-called complementary medicines or alternative medicine products are unregistered, and this is illegal, but they are being sold, unfettered, unchecked, unmonitored and unpoliced.”
The institutions which are meant to monitor foods are the Department of Health, under which the Medicines Control Council and the Directorate for Food Control fall, as well as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
“These bodies are all under-resourced and fraud and pseudoscience are everywhere,” said Steinman.
He has a great deal to say about pseudoscience in the form of anti-aging tablets, or products that exploit emotional issues and customer vulnerability, such as those which promise to increase breast or penis size, or that will supposedly help you lose weight.
“Pseudoscience has been going on forever. People were once told they could lose weight by eating tapeworms in tablets.”
Muscle-building products made from whey don’t escape his scrutiny. “These products argue that you need protein to build muscle, but many of these supplements contain a lot that is not protein – and many have only been tested on rats and quite probably don’t have the same result for humans.”
Steinman, a medical doctor, trained at UCT and at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, as well as in the Allergology Unit at Groote Schuur Hospital, has received numerous awards for his research on allergies, intolerance, additives, preservatives and general food safety. He has been the Allergy Society of South Africa’s (ALLSA) representative on the South African Department of Health’s Food Legislation Advisory Group (FLAG) since its beginnings.
Steinman also closely monitors – and takes on – the often misleading claims by complementary medicines companies about products that are often not properly tested. These include Herbex’s Attack the Fat syrup which claims to help weight loss; Solal’s anti-aging pill to boost life-span; AntaGolin’s weight loss plans and USN’s testosterone-boosting Tribulus.
Steinman has met with the National Consumer Commission (which is meant to implement the Consumer Protection Act) to attempt to enlighten them about some of the complementary medicine scams – but came to the conclusion that “they simply don’t have the will or appetite to take on the issue. About the only issue they have taken on is the Kuga car that is prone to suddenly bursting into flames
“A massive number of complementary medicines are unregistered. There are laws about this, but nobody’s taking action to see if they are registered or not, to test them or to remove the unregistered and untested ones from the market. We need to keep up the pressure on the government and the bodies which are meant to regulate food fraud,” said Steinman.
Dr Steinman runs a website called CAMCheck, “a South African consumers’ guide to scams, pseudoscience and voodoo science”.
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