The Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries hosted a two-day joint workshop on Food Security and Safety with the Portfolio Committees of Health and Social Development and the Select Committee on Land and Mineral Resources. The second day of the workshop focussed on food safety. It began with an unscheduled presentation by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation addressing some of the concerns raised on the first day. The Department said that the concerns of the joint committees resonated with the findings of the Nutrition Evaluation that DPME had commissioned in 2014, and that the Department's plan was to have long-term application beyond addressing the current crisis. The first priority was to establish a multi-sectoral food and nutrition security council, involving civil society, community-based structures and research institutions in addition to government. Criticisms of institutional bloat were accepted. The presentation could not go into too much detail, however, because the plans still had to be presented to the executive.
Members were pleased that the presentation brought more clarity to the Department's intentions, though some felt the plans were still too abstract. Members agreed that interdepartmental cooperation would be crucial and asked how this was going to be achieved, about plans to mitigate food price increases caused by the drought, and questioned the apparent absence of plans for monitoring. Many of the Members' questions requested details that the Department had not yet finalised.
Prof Lise Korsten of the University of Pretoria delivered the second presentation looked at five building blocks of a safe food supply: (1) law and regulations, (2) food control management, (3) inspection services, (4) laboratory services including food monitoring, and (5) information, education, communication and training. Food safety was one of the elements of food sovereignty, which was a precondition of food security. She gave an overview of food-related legislation in South Africa, using pesticide laws, which seemed to be creating a backlog of pesticide registration, to illustrate the complexity of the legislative environment. She drew attention to the fact that not all food testing laboratories were accredited, limiting the reliability of their results, and to the fact that there was a lack of educational opportunities in the food industry. A food safety authority was needed, with close ties to bodies such as the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), and the tendency to have one standard for export and a different, lower standard for the local market should be checked. She did not think the country was prepared for a massive food-borne disease outbreak.
The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications presented on the food safety responsibilities of three key departments: Health, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Trade And Industry. Responsibility for food safety was shared by industry, consumers and government. Relevant legislation and the interaction of food safety issues with other departmental responsibilities were discussed, with special attention to the Consumer Protection Act, the most fundamental legal instrument for protecting South African consumers.
Committee members had many questions for Prof Korsten. They asked why food-borne diseases seemed to be becoming more prevalent worldwide, raised concerns about poor food labelling, asked about different food safety regulations around the world, the unregulated food market in South Africa, pesticides and chicken brining regulation, the need for a single, central food safety agency, food safety in schools and the need for universities to train people in food safety skills.
Finally, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) reported on progress towards the establishment of a South African Food Control Agency. A long list of challenges was discussed, looking at the actions planned to address each one, the responsible department or entity and the current progress in addressing the challenge. Several of the challenges had arisen in the wake of the so-called horse meat scandal of 2013. Progress already made in various departments was looked at, and the recommendations of the National Consumer Commission (NCC) investigation into meat labelling and potential food fraud begun in 2013 were reported on. The recent issue of meat (poultry, beef and pork) imports from the USA which had threatened South Africa's benefits from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) were discussed, and the agreements that had been reached were summarised.
Members asked about the relationship between the Food Control Agency and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the pesticide registration backlog, the outcome of the 2013 investigation into meat contamination and the carcinogenicity of glyphosates. Members noted that there was a lot of hard work to be done. Food security was a politically neutral ideal that the whole country should be working to achieve, regardless of political affiliation, colour or class, especially in the context of the present drought. The workshop had identified problems and the magnitude of the task facing the country had come into focus.
The second day of the workshop focussed on food safety. It began with an unscheduled presentation by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation addressing some of the concerns that had been raised on the first day.
Presentation by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation
Mr Thulani Masilela (Outcome Facilitator: Health, Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation) recapped the concerns that had been raised the day before: most importantly, the lack of co-ordinated government planning and action, and a lack of urgency in responding to the drought crisis. The concerns of the joint committees resonated with the findings of the Nutrition Evaluation that his department had commissioned in 2014. The plan the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) was developing was to have long-term application beyond addressing the current crisis. He indicated which department would be responsible for each of seven priority areas, and looked at three priority areas in more detail. The first priority was to establish a multi-sectoral food and nutrition security council. It would involve civil society, community-based structures, research institutions, in addition to government. It was hoped that such a council would facilitate co-ordination. He conceded that criticisms of institutional bloat were justified, and said that the new plan would be more streamlined. He could not go into too much detail, however, and everything was still subject to review, because the plans had to be presented to the executive first. He conceded that economic modelling had been inadequate in the past, but in government's defence, all the research presented by Prof Sheryl Hendriks the day before had been commissioned by government itself. One report (the Cornerstone report) had estimated a R2bn shortfall in nutrition funding. The next steps would be to consult further with provincial government and external stakeholders, refinement and costing, and tabling the plan to the executive and incorporation of its recommendations. The Department would return with a more detailed plan once it had consulted with the executive.
Ms M Semenya (ANC) commended the greater clarity of the Department's presentation, and welcomed the inclusion of economic modelling. She appreciated that the plan was only provisional, and called for a follow-up meeting in three months.
Ms A Steyn (DA) welcomed the improvement, but observed that while Prof Hendriks had used up-to-date government data sources, the departments themselves had not. She still felt there was a lack of firm timeframes, and remained concerned about the impact of the drought, which would cause price increases across the board. Was there a short-term plan to mitigate this?
Mr A Shaik-Emam (NFP) asked what DPME would do differently to ensure more effective cooperation between national, provincial and municipal government. Would DPME be able to get the different departments involved to buy into the plan, rather than feel that DPME was interfering with their operations?
Mr O Sefako (ANC) also appreciated the presentation. He agreed that effective cooperation would be vital.
Mr Masilela replied that DPME would not interfere with the operations of other departments; it would only develop the plan, and coordinate and monitor its implementation. He agreed that ensuring cooperation between all levels of government would be important.
Mr Shaik-Emam was concerned about the effect of chemicals used in farming on the food available to poor people.
Ms L James (DA) noted that the “next steps” did not include monitoring of the plan. She also did not think local government was being effectively involved.
Dr P Maesela (ANC) was concerned about the abstractness of the planning. The bottom line was that they were dealing with food supply, the most basic human need.
Mr J Julius (DA) said that targets and measurable goals were required. He also called for less reliance on social grants.
The Chairperson reminded members that the purpose of the workshop was not to take decisions, but to identify what needed to be done. A workshop involving the political heads of the departments would be very important. She said that it was unfortunate that the portfolio committee on water and sanitation was not part of the workshop.
Ms Semenya said that a possible perception in local government that matters of food security were the responsibility of provincial government only, should be looked into. She did not think that they could afford another workshop, though, if Parliament would not be able to hold the departments accountable for their submissions.
Mr Masilela replied that many of the questions concerned details that could not be finalised yet.
Mr Peter Netshipale (Deputy Director-General: Community Development, Department of Social Development) said there was a need to fast-track the consultation with the executive, in order to start implementing the plans.
Prof Lise Korsten presentation on Food Safety
Prof Korsten (Professor of Plant Sciences, University of Pretoria) said food safety was something that people did not generally want to talk about. Her presentation looked at five building blocks of a safe food supply: (1) law and regulations, (2) food control management, (3) inspection services, (4) laboratory services including food monitoring, and (5) information, education, communication and training. Food safety was one of the elements of food sovereignty, which was a precondition of food security. The bulk of food safety research was done in Western Europe and the United States of America (USA). Last year, the USA had passed the Safe Food Act, which would create a single, independent food safety agency. This would have an effect on South African exports, which would be subjected to more stringent safety tests. The African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 did not place sufficient importance on food and agriculture. She gave an overview of food-related legislation in South Africa, using pesticide laws, which seemed to be creating a backlog of pesticide registration, to illustrate the complexity of the legislative environment. She looked at food inspection regulations, and the inspection system at ports of entry into the country, expressing uncertainty as to how effective this system was. She looked at the number and distribution of environmental health inspectors, using the Eastern Cape as an example. There was an effective network, but were they linking up with other departments?
Moving on to the laboratory landscape, she said one major concern was that not all laboratories were accredited, limiting the reliability of their results. Agriculture was a key element in South Africa's bioeconomy strategy, and the Centres of Excellence like the one headed by Prof Hendriks were doing valuable work, creating new knowledge. A food safety Centre of Excellence should be created. Another important task was to create a positive perception of farmers, farming and food in general. There was a lack of educational opportunities in the food industry – no university in the country offered a course in food law, for example. She then looked at some examples of the regulatory environment of the food industry, looking at the mushroom industry, the hospitality industry and the beverage industry, from different angles. She argued that it was imperative that South Africa improve its food safety testing capacity. A food safety authority was needed, with close ties to bodies such as the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), and the tendency to have one standard for export and a different, lower standard for the local market should be checked. She did not think the country was prepared for a massive food-borne disease outbreak.
National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) presentation
Ms Meisie Katz (Food and Associated Industries, NRCS) said that the Departments of Health (DOH), Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and Trade and Industry (DTI) had been working together to minimise the risks of food-borne disease. Her presentation would look at the roles and responsibilities of each department, although she noted that food safety was the responsibility of industry (for example, using appropriate processes and technology) and consumers (for example, safe practices in the home) as well as government. She looked at the food control system in South Africa, and the responsibilities of DOH, DAFF and DTI, the last through its agencies, the National Consumer Commission (NCC) and the NRCS. She discussed relevant legislation (including the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act of 1972, Health Act of 2003, Fertilizer, Farm Feed, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act of 1947, Meat Safety Act of 2000, the Consumer Protection Act, 2008 and the Legal Metrology Act of 2014) and discussed the interaction of food safety issues with other departmental responsibilities. She paid special attention to the Consumer Protection Act, the most fundamental legal instrument for protecting South African consumers, and discussed the mandate of the NCC to enforce the CPA. She also looked at the interaction of the food industry with technical government entities such as SABS and the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS), and the process followed by the NRCS when applying regulations.
The Chairperson wondered why Coca-Cola had not been banned, given how unhealthy it was.
Prof Korsten said that the soft drink industry was facing a similar threat to the one faced by the tobacco industry a few decades ago, in the face of a worldwide anti-sugar lobby.
The Chairperson asked why food-borne diseases seemed to be becoming more prevalent worldwide.
Prof Korsten said that food had never been safer. However, the volume of food produced was far greater, and the logistics of food supply (such as transport and preservation) was far more complex. A lot more was known today than it had been in the past.
Ms Semenya said that both presentations highlighted the need to take food safety seriously. She asked what regulation was applied to imported food, and whether we had the capacity to test it.
Prof Korsten said that legal imports were all stringently tested and complied with South African standards. Illegal imports could not be guaranteed, of course.
Mr Mooketsa Ramasodi (DAFF Deputy Director-General: Agricultural Production, Health & Food Safety) did not think the capacity at ports of entry was sufficient, in terms of preventing illegal imports as well as testing legal imports.
Ms Semenya said that packaging and labelling of food products was often very poor. Supermarkets sometimes sold unlabelled goods, putting consumers, especially the poor, at a potential risk.
A DAFF department official replied that comprehensive legislation existed to govern the labelling of food products. Product name, country of origin and a list of ingredients were all compulsory. He was aware that some companies did not comply, however.
Prof Korsten added that food labelling was sometimes completely arbitrary, with no-name brand products coming off the same production line as premium brands.
Mr Shaik-Emam said that a lot of food available was of substandard quality. He drew attention to the practice of selling expired and shop-soiled goods, which he was fighting against in Kwazulu-Natal.
Prof Korsten was aware of the problem that a lot of the food that failed safety standard tests found its way into the informal market. Some of this food was certainly dangerous.
Ms Z Jongbloed (DA) asked if anything was known about the amount of food in the South African market that escaped regulation.
Mr C Maxegwana (ANC) asked if international playing fields were level for food safety standards.
Prof Korsten replied that different countries did have different standards, so in that sense the playing fields were not level. South Africa's exports were of the very highest quality, and produce destined for the local market was only slightly lower.
Dr Maesela replied that there were different food standards even within the country, effectively linked to wealth.
Prof Korsten said that the difference between what was sold at upmarket supermarkets was often just cosmetic, or to do with the uniformity of the produce.
Mr Maxegwana asked if pesticide use in micro-scale farming was regulated.
Prof Korsten replied that the use of unregistered pesticides was quite widespread in South African produce, sometimes unavoidably, as the agricultural sector could not always afford to wait until an effective pesticide was registered. She conceded that not much was known about a lot of fresh food sold in rural areas.
Mr Sefako asked Prof Korsten about chicken brine injection. Was it safe, as DOH claimed? What was the purpose of brining?
Dr W James (DA) added that the country had been waiting for four to five years for DAFF to issue regulations governing brining levels in chicken.
Prof Korsten agreed that this was a problem.
Mr Sefako asked if the monitoring of food at ports of entry had any effect on the food consumed by people in rural areas, who were the most vulnerable.
Dr James suggested that the NRCS should be involved with the Department of Environmental Affairs, which was responsible for handling hazardous medical waste. Independent monitoring of medical safety was necessary.
Prof Korsten agreed that independent monitoring was needed. Good testing regimes were not the whole solution, though. The most important thing was to ensure that the products tested were safe.
Mr Murdock Ramathuba, DOH Acting Director: Environmental Health, noted that recent amendments to the Health Act made provision for the establishment of the Office of Standards and Compliance.
Ms Steyn agreed on the need for a single, central food safety agency. She was concerned that several departments sharing responsibility led to "passing the buck". She asked if statistics on deaths from poor food safety were kept. She was concerned that food safety issues were a major cause of child deaths.
Prof Korsten replied that one of the projects at the Food Security Centre of Excellence was looking at baby food, and trying to find links to mortality.
Ms Jongbloed asked what kind of consumer education on food safety was envisaged.
Mr Ebrahim Mohamed (Commissioner, NCC) said that the NCC had many awareness campaigns. It conducted shopping mall visits, school meetings, workshops and exhibitions, a website and television appearances.
Mr R Cebekhulu (IFP) asked why South Africa allowed genetically modified maize and soya into the country, despite the majority of European countries had banned them.
Prof Korsten replied that this was a massive global debate. Europe had taken the opposite view from the USA and South Africa where virtually all maize was genetically modified. She regretted that she could not give the final word on the debate.
A committee member expressed concern about the lack of food inspectors in schools. There was a need for training of the people handling food.
Prof Korsten was also concerned about this. The question of the toxin levels in peanut butter was well-known, she said.
Mr Ramathuba replied that the Minister had given instructions last month for a plan to be created to focus specifically on this matter. He said they would have something to show soon.
Ms G Oliphant (deputy chairperson of committee chairpersons, Northern Cape provincial legislature) drew attention to the apparent deterioration in the quality of chicken. She had found that chicken these days often released a whitish fluid when it was cooked. She disagreed with Prof Korsten that our food was safer than it had ever been.
Prof Korsten replied it was important to remember that the whole environment of food production and consumption had changed drastically. The issues needed to be seen holistically. The role of the mining sector in polluting the environment was also something that would need to be confronted. The first requirements for healthy food were healthy water and healthy soil.
Dr Maesela called for universities to produce more graduates who would be able to contribute positively to society, for example as food safety regulators.
Prof Korsten replied that universities themselves were debating this question too. There was sometimes a problem of perception, that applied to science like her work was looked down upon. Students, too, often just had a vague idea that they wanted to work in a laboratory, for example.
Ms Dunjwa asked Prof Korsten about the health implications of reusing cooking oil.
Prof Korsten replied that research had been done at Bloemfontein University showing that some fast food vendors reused oil to the point where it became toxic. Many food safety problems actually emerged after the point of sale. A high proportion of food poisoning cases arose from ineffective cold-chain management by consumers. We are facing exceptional circumstances with the current heatwaves, however.
Dr Maesela asked why re-heating food repeatedly was dangerous. How carcinogenic was braaing?
Prof Korsten replied that there was some evidence that burnt meat was linked to cancer, but it was not entirely conclusive.
DAFF on progress towards the establishment of a South African Food Control Agency
Mr Mooketsa Ramasodi (DAFF Deputy Director-General: Agricultural Production, Health & Food Safety) gave a broad overview of food control in South Africa, noting the problems of coordination that were leading to inefficiency and compromising the safety of South African consumers. Food safety began with safe agricultural production. He discussed a long list of challenges being faced, looking at the actions planned to address each one, the responsible department or entity and the current progress in addressing the challenge. For example, the inadequacy of laboratory services and the lack of a government institution for quantifying foreign deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) traces in meat was identified as a challenge. The plan was to close legal loopholes, set acceptable levels of cross-species contamination, and to identify laboratories that had the required capacity, such as the Agricultural Research Council's (ARC's) biotechnology platform, and Swift Laboratories in Cape Town and Pretoria. DAFF would be responsible for addressing this challenge, and so far, ARC had been commissioned to do research and improve laboratory capacity for species identification. ARC had done a pilot survey of 400 meat products on the market, and would present a summary by the end of March 2016. ARC had also been commissioned to do a study of nine food-borne pathogens (including E. coli and salmonella) in meat products, which would be completed by August 2016. Several challenges had arisen in the wake of the so-called horse meat scandal of 2013. He reiterated Prof Korsten's call for universities to offer courses in food law.
Mr Ramasodi looked at some of the progress already been made in various departments, and reported the recommendations of the NCC investigation into meat labelling and potential food fraud begun in 2013. Although it had been completed, it could not yet be made public as a sensitive issue had emerged from it. He discussed the recent matter of meat (poultry, beef and pork) imports from the USA which had threatened South Africa's benefits from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and summarised the agreements that had been reached. For example, after the lifting of the ban on US beef imports to SA in June 2015 - due to Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, it had been agreed that meat products derived from third-country livestock would be scrutinised to ensure compliance. He concluded with a summary of the next critical steps that needed to be taken.
Dr James asked if there would be a relationship between the Food Control Agency and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), which was a passive rather than an investigative body.
A departmental official replied that there would be a relationship with the NICD.
Ms Steyn asked why the pesticide registration backlog was not being dealt with. She noted that the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act dated to 1947, and wondered whether it remained relevant today.
A departmental official conceded that there had been issues with pesticide registration, but said that progress was being made. Consultations with industry concerning a review of the Act were ongoing.
Ms Steyn asked if any changes in the law would be necessary to allow the sort of cooperation that was envisaged between national and provincial government.
Ms Steyn asked if anyone who had been found guilty of meat contamination during the 2013 investigation had been charged, and if any penalties had been imposed. Nothing would change if transgressors were not punished.
A departmental official said that no sanctions or prosecutions had been issued from those investigations, due to gaps in the investigation and legal issues concerning the samples tested. This was one reason nationally accredited DNA laboratories were needed.
Ms Steyn asked if the department had received any requests to look at the safety of glyphosates (Roundup).
A departmental official said that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had classified glyphosates as only “probably” carcinogenic. The department was watching international developments carefully in deciding on its response. He noted that the European Food Safety Authority had declared glyphosates non-carcinogenic late in 2014.
Mr Cebekhulu asked if any South African agency had itself conducted any research into the carcinogenicity of glyphosates.
Ms Steyn agreed that we could not simply wait and see what the rest of the world did. She also asked if milk was being tested for brucellosis in South Africa.
Ms Semenya commented that there was good food safety legislation, it just needed to be implemented. Urgency at municipal level was crucial, and in many cases municipalities did not know what was expected of them, and lacked capacity. She called for unlabelled goods to be taken off retailers' shelves, and meat products should indicate their country of origin.
A departmental official said that according to the Consumer Protection Act, anyone in the supply chain (producer, manufacturer, importer or retailer) could be held accountable for unlabelled products. The minister of trade and industry was empowered to require imported goods to disclose their origin.
Ms Dunjwa said that the hard work of governing was now beginning. Food security was a politically neutral ideal that the whole country should be working to achieve, regardless of political affiliation, colour or class, especially in the context of the present drought.
The Chairperson agreed that food security was a wide socio-economic challenge that required efficient inter-departmental co-operation.
Ms Semenya thanked all the contributors to the workshop. Problems had been identified and the magnitude of the task facing the country had come into focus. She called on departments to be proactive.
Meeting was adjourned.
- Workshop on Food Security and Food Safety: Dti presentation
- Food Safety“the orphan child” presentation
- Roles and Responsibilities of DAFF, DOH & Dti ( NCC, NRCS) on Food Safety Regulation
- Progress Report on Inter-Departmental Food Safety Coordination Committee & Establishment of Food Control Agency in South Africa
- Government Drought Intervention Plan presentation
- Roles and Responsibilities of DAFF, DOH & Dti ( NCC, NRCS) on Food Safety Regulation presentation
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