Back to Basics: Government must re-enforce the deployment of experienced environmental health and meat inspectors

Rodney Lentit MPP

Western Cape

The South Africa government must take full responsibility for deploying trained and experienced Health Inspectors in our fresh food and produce industry.

Government must get back to basics and take responsibility for executing its own regulations with regard to the Food and Health Inspectorate, in order to restore consumer confidence. The meat scandal has left many citizens disgruntled.

But, is this scandal not about policy implementation and oversight?

Consumers have a right to expect that food is exactly what it says on the label. The meat scandal that has rocked the global and South African food industry is not limited to meat producers and traders. It also affects kitchen discipline in restaurants and fast food outlets.

The biggest culprits are retail stores with fast food and deli counters where produce – some having reached expiration dates – are recycled and sold to consumers in the form of saucy braais, roasts and “fresh” confectionery.

Where are the days when health inspectors used to be a customary sight at restaurants, fast food shops, hospital kitchens and factory canteens?

Government’s obvious assumption that a service provider is implementing legislation and regulations of the industry is an essential violation of consumer rights.

The fact that government is leaving the rights of consumers in the hands of retailers (food technicians and technologists) is a clear indication that self-oversight versus regulatory or independent oversight is a smoke screen. It hides the lack of implementation of the many regulations that call for inspections. Independent oversight and regulation of the industry has proven to have detrimental consequences for religious beliefs as well as for the ethical, cultural and health standards of our people.

I have received a written reply from the Western Cape Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Anton Bredell, on an official Parliamentary question submitted with regard to the meat scandal. It states that ‘with regard to special analysis of products it must be noted that the National Department’s Chemical Forensic laboratory, on whom the municipal health services rely for their analysis, have over the past few years not been in a position to execute such (histologic) analysis’.

In the same report, it states that the mislabeling of meat products violates food-labeling regulations in the Food Act reading as follows:

The sales of other species of meat (horse, water buffalo, ostrich, and wild in general) that is slaughtered at a registered abattoir, is legal in terms but that it must be labeled as such. With regard to processed meat products, the presence of any species of meat must be clearly declared on the label”.

In a country like ours where poorer communities are the majority; POOR people’s disposable incomes prompts them to grab bargains without reading the fine print. The state seems evasive about the real issue at hand, and that is the protection of consumer rights and effective oversight of government appointed Environmental Health Practitioners.

The only way that this can be achieved is if government takes full responsibility for deploying trained and experienced Health Inspectors and or Environmental Health Practitioners to execute existing food legislation which the national health department reportedly adapts on a regular basis in order to keep up to date with international standards and local needs.

It is alarming that contamination and mislabeling of meat products is currently the subject of fraud investigations in CODEX member countries internationally. The aim everywhere is to standardise food control and legislation.

Currently, no statutory Government institution whether Municipalities, Metro’s or District Municipalities, are budgeting for the DNA sampling (histological) of meat and meat products. The equitable share that District Municipalities are receiving makes this function (municipal health) an under-funded mandate. The services that they render are forcing them to deliver only a minimum service like water quality management (normal bacteriological) and some chemical sampling of food products.

The time is now for Government institutions to provide a public health inspectorate service that is protected by the Constitution of our country. Section 24 of our Constitution guarantees our citizens’ rights to a safe environment.

There should be universal access to basic essential health care, with the state taking the responsibility for delivery and financing of health care (details of this are dealt with in the chapter 10 on health, National Development Plan 2030)”. The NDP also focusses on making resources available for Health Personnel, in this case Health Inspectors or Environmental Health Practitioners. If the statutory function of providing quality Food Safety monitoring has been delegated to an organ of State then the organ of State must provide the funding and comprehensive support to execute this function effectively.

The Auditor-General must monitor this budget spending through Performance Management legislation before any clean audit is issued. Audits of municipalities should not only focus on clean administration but also on effective service delivery. Today too much emphasis is placed on clean administration and not enough on mandated service delivery. Any municipality or district municipality must get a clean audit. This in itself should not be a major achievement that is celebrated. Effective service delivery must be measured against the Bill of Rights, the protection of constitutional rights as well as ethical rights, religious or otherwise and the right to information about the contents of food, meat or products must be protected.

It will be a sad day (and that day is seemingly approaching soon) when the people of South Africa takes Government to court for failing to protect these hard-earned rights.

As a Member of the Western Cape Parliament’s Portfolio Committee of Health, I will make this an agenda point to appeal to our government to bring back the good old-fashioned Health Inspectors who were our watchdogs in an era where we enjoyed much greater public health than in the 21st century.

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