What’s this meat in my hamburger?

The shockwaves of disbelief emanating from consumers following the recent international horse meat ‘scandal’ where horse meat was found in consumer food products have opened the eyes of many consumers to pay more attention to the content of their food products and labels. Additionally, consumers have become more concerned about what remedies are available to them should they purchase products that contain unsafe content or content which has not been fully disclosed. Fortunately, our law provides remedies which you as a consumer can exercise should you find your burger tasting more of horse than beef.

In general it should be understood that the consumption of horsemeat is not illegal provided the slaughter and importation and exportation of such horsemeat is in compliance with the Meat Safety Act, 2000. However, this does not imply that having horsemeat in your beef burger is ok! If such burger does contain horsemeat, this must be disclosed to the consumer to ensure that you are aware of the content of the food product you are about to purchase.

Regulations regulating the labelling of foodstuffs require foodstuffs to be properly labelled displaying content, ingredients, nutritional information, additives, use by dates etc. to name but a few. The purpose of such labelling is amongst others, to inform the consumer of the exact content of the product and allow the consumer the ability to make an informed decision regarding the product. So no horsemeat, unless the label says so! Should the label be incorrect, false or misleading, the guilty manufacturer can receive a fine or even imprisonment.

The new Consumer Protection Act, 2008 provides regulatory protection as well as to consumers against unsafe and dangerous products. The Consumer Protection Act contains provisions regarding the proper labelling and description of products and additionally provides for strict liability across the supply chain, allowing a consumer who suffered damages due to a defect or danger in a product or in the provision of an unsafe product, to sue any person or entity in the supply chain without having to prove negligence on the part of the person or entity. This implies that if a consumer purchases a food product that is defective, unsafe or dangerous, he can sue the manufacturer, retailer or supplier and need only prove that the food product was dangerous or defective and that he suffered damages as a consequence thereof. This does not mean that horsemeat is automatically unsafe or dangerous, but rather places an obligation on the manufacturer to properly disclose and protects the consumer by applying strict liability in the event that the horsemeat is proven to have made the product unsafe or dangerous.

The Consumer Protection Act further provides for the lodging of complaints against suppliers and provides substantial remedies to the various bodies authorised to investigate complaints lodged by consumers. The Consumer Protection Act also caters for hefty fines and even imprisonment against offending suppliers.

A consumer thus need never feel short changed if his hamburger is not what it seems. As a consumer you have a right to know what you are consuming and consumers should enforce this right through paying greater attention to product labels and understanding the content of their nutrition as well as taking the offending manufacturer or supplier to task to correct the situation and even pay for damages which may have arisen from the use of the product.

March 18, 2013
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