Bunfight over food labelling

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Pretoria - A Christian group that wants religious certification and signs on food packaging to be banned, faces an uphill battle against Muslims, Jews, Hindus and millions of members of Christian churches who are opposing the application in the Pretoria High Court.

The National Association and Coalition of Christian Groups and Individuals for Practical Equality and Protection of Constitutional Rights filed papers asking that the court declare that the religious certification of food, which excluded the Christian faith, was unconstitutional.

The group objects to the fact that a wide range of food products is religiously labelled, such as those carrying the halaal, Hindu or Jewish signs, indicating the product is suitable for consumption by these groups. It says there should be alternative products available without these labels.

The coalition launched the application against the ministers of health, and trade and industry, and the National Consumer Tribunal.

Philip Groenstein, a member of the group in Pretoria who brought the application, says the main religious group in South Africa are Christians, with 80 percent. Muslims make up less than 2 percent, and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists make up the rest.

He contends that it is unfair that the majority of people in the country should bear the brunt of costs imposed when food is religiously certified.

“The RSA public is mostly uninformed that more than 98 percent of (consumers) pay for about all the Muslim certification costs… and that they effectively finance Muslim activities and spreading of their influence in this respect.”

Rafiek Mohamed, secretary-general of the United Ulama Council of SA, which has been admitted as an intervening party, said none of the religious certifying bodies in South Africa imposed their certifying process on suppliers. It was in fact the suppliers who voluntarily approached the bodies, because this brought value to their products.

“People who disapprove of the religious signs can simply abstain from purchasing such a product,” he said.

“The real nature of the (application) is based on religious rivalry, jealousy and defeatist resentment. Such antagonism should not be dressed up as a legal issue… This case demonstrates the urgent and compelling need for religious tolerance.”

Darren Sevitz, chief excutive of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of SA (UOS), denied that religious certification of foodstuffs had any significant effect on the price paid by consumers. The UOS is the second intervening party.

Sevitz approached several manufacturers regarding their policies and found that the cost of religious certification was not passed to consumers.

Kraft Foods SA and Africa Spice Limited have both deposed affidavits, saying religious certification of their products is paid for out of separate budgets.

Meanwhile, several churches have distanced themselves from the application.

Pastor Ray McCauley, on behalf of Rhema Church, Rhema Family churches and the International Federation of Christian Churches, with a combined membership of two-and-a-half million members, also deposed an affidavit in support of the intervening parties.

“The church and its members do not have any objection to the certification of food products.

“We do not regard the certification of food products as any infringement of religious rights and do not see any need for the relief sought by the applicant.”

In another affidavit, Landile Shembe, of the Shembe Church, which has five million members, concurred.

Professor Billy Gundelfinger, acting on behalf of the UOS, said that although he could not comment on the case, something positive had emerged, in that Muslims, Hindus and Jews were supporting each other in a common cause.

“Notwithstanding the fact that a Christian group had launched the application against them, other Christian churches, whose combined membership exceeded 10 million, were supporting the Muslims, Jews and Hindus in opposing the application.

“The Muslim and Jewish communities, often perceived as being antagonistic towards one another, were standing shoulder to shoulder in defence of their religious rights,” Gundelfinger said.

Independent on Saturday



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