We South Africans have become accustomed to seeing date marks – those “use by” and “best before” dates on food, but it’s only in the past month that they’ve become a legal requirement.
The new food labelling regulations, which finally came into force on March 1, make it compulsory for food manufacturers to put date stamps on food, with the exception of a few items, such as honey; unprocessed, unpacked meat and fresh produce; vinegar and sweets. Foods that have to be chilled; cooked products, pre-packed, prepared vegetables and fruit; juices with a limited shelf life – in fact, any food that could lead to food poisoning if not stored properly – must carry a use-by date.
And it’s illegal to offer for sale, relabel or donate any food that is past its use-by date. Other foods – those with a longer shelf life – must carry “best-before” dates and while it’s not an offence to continue to offer such food for sale, it’s clearly not best practice.
It is now illegal to remove or alter any date mark – be it a use-by date or a best-before date. And so to this week’s case.
Jacqui Cramb regularly shops at the Food Lover’s Market branch in Rinaldo Road, Glen Anil, Durban.
When visiting the store about a month ago, she checked the date marks on a few packs of Sasko muffin mix and noticed that they had expired, as had the entire batch of that variant.
She alerted the manager, who apologised and instructed an employee to remove the expired stock.
When Cramb returned to the store just more than a week ago, she saw what she presumed was fresh stock of Sasko’s bran muffin mix, but she was in for a shock when she went to check the dates. There were none.
“Stock of the other variants of the same product had current date marks, so naturally I smelt a rat,” Cramb says. “I suspected that someone had wiped off the expired dates and put the same stock back on the shelf.”
Cramb reported her experience to Consumer Watch, and I took up the case with Food Lover’s Market’s head office.
Responding, the group’s Devon Currie said the store manager at that branch had issued instructions that the stock in question be returned to the supplier, as was normal practice.
But the store’s receiving manager allegedly instructed a merchandiser to wipe the dates off the expired packs and pack them back on the shelves instead. This while the store manager was away at an annual conference.
That receiving manager is currently on leave and, according to Currie, will face a disciplinary charge of sabotage on his return, along with the merchandiser. Currie said a full inquiry would be conducted.
Food Lover’s Market KZN regional manager Leonel Luizinho said the incident, while isolated, was hugely regretted by the company.
He said the company had not only inspected the rest of the stock in that store to ensure no other dates had been tampered with – they hadn’t – but also intended to introduce more stringent control measures to ensure that there wasn’t a repeat incident.
Technology that’s outdated
Who knew that date marks were so easy to remove?
I was curious about just how that merchandiser had allegedly removed the best-before dates on those packs. Did he apply a solvent of some kind – meths, perhaps?
I didn’t have any meths on hand, so I dabbed a solvent I did have – an acetone-free nail polish remover – on to some cotton wool and then applied it to one of those Sasko muffin mix packs.
The date mark came off the shiny plastic pack with a single, light wipe. Astonished, I opened my grocery cupboard and tried the nail polish remover on other products.
Off came the Lay’s chips best before date, and the Marie biscuits one, the Five Roses tea date, and the one on the All Gold tomato sauce, too. No effort required – they came straight off, leaving no trace.
Then I opened my fridge and just as easily removed the dates from the milk, yoghurts, mayonnaise and orange juice, as well as the date mark on the pack of frozen fish in my freezer.
However, the can of Lucky Star pilchards was resistant – it faded, but didn’t disappear, and the Koo baked beans can date didn’t budge at all.
So, clearly there are different processes and inks that manufacturers can use to date mark their products, and some are more tamper-proof than others.
I asked the Consumer Goods Council (CGC) whether it advised industry players with regard to best practice when it comes to date marking, to make the dates as tamper-proof as possible. Responding, spokesman Mateboho Tsiu said the council’s Food Safety Initiative “advises and encourages” its members to adhere to the regulation that the date marking may not be removed or altered.
But how this was done was the responsibility of the individual food manufacturers or retailers, he said. So clearly this is not a big issue for the CGC.
Sasko’s marketing manager, Danie Bower, told me that it was the packaging material on which the dates are printed, rather than the ink used, that made it possible for the date to be removed with a solvent.
Which doesn’t explain why I was able to remove the dates on some cans and not others.
Tiger Brands spokeswoman Trisha Naidoo said the company was “horrified” by my discovery and said an internal audit would be carried out as a result. While its Koo baked beans cans date mark didn’t budge, the date printed on to its All Gold tomato sauce glass bottle date came off with a single wipe.
“We are horrified by your report – the fact that date coding can be removed that easily and the ramifications of that is appalling, to say the least,” she said. “Our date coding system follows a standard operating procedure, which is a regulated requirement. Depending on the type of packaging material and product, the appropriate ink, as recommended by the supplier, would be used. We believe that this matter is certainly an industry challenge.”
Simba’s national quality and vendor assurance manager, Nicolette Samson, said: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Date marking is clearly critical to keep our customers informed. We will be looking into this new information.”
Tric Stone, consumer liaison manager for AVI Limited, which includes Five Roses tea and Bakers biscuits in its stable, said that to print its date marks, the company mostly used MEK (methyl ethyl ketone) ink, which was fast-drying, non-smearing, and highly resistant to sunlight, high temperatures, high humidity and “rubbing”.
While the company did not consider the use of nail polish remover to remove date codes to be “common consumer practice”, Stone said, it was aware of the fact that “there are unscrupulous operators out there”.
She said I would probably have been able to remove the date marks from “most packaging types”, other than that with date marks applied by means of a laser.
“Alternative robust date code printing methods form part of our considerations to consistently raise the bar in our offerings to our consumers,” Stone said.
Anthea Abraham, communications manager for the Oceana Group, which produces the Lucky Star range of canned fish, said traceability was hugely important to the business, so the production codes and best-before dates on its cans were printed with a range of specialised inks.
“Our ink changes colour during the sterilisation process to provide proof of sterilisation. It will fade if you try to remove it, but cannot be removed completely,” she said.
“Our focus has been on the can code being tamper-proof.”
Whether a date mark is merely removed, or removed and replaced with a falsified date, it’s a grave consumer injustice, not to mention illegal.
So clearly it’s in everyone’s interests that food manufacturers direct their resources into coming up with date marks that are as tamper-resistant as possible, whether that means changing the packaging material, the ink, or the process used.