Heala calls on health minister to prioritise food justice

Zimasa Rubha counts every grain of sugar, as the price escalates, causing both cold drink and sweet manufacturers to up their prices. | Supplied

Zimasa Rubha counts every grain of sugar, as the price escalates, causing both cold drink and sweet manufacturers to up their prices. | Supplied

Published Jul 8, 2024


Durban — The Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) has welcomed new Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and called for Health Promotion Levy prioritisation.

The alliance said it was calling on the newly elected minister to put food justice on the political agenda and create a healthier and more equitable future for all South Africans.

The alliance recently released a statement congratulating Motsoaledi and his deputy minister, Dr Mathume Joseph Phaahla, and urged them to prioritise the implementation of evidence-based policies that will address the triple burden of hunger, food insecurity, and obesity – and ultimately improve the health of ordinary South Africans.

Heala’s communications manager, Zukiswa Zimela, said that, to date, South Africa faced alarming levels of hunger, food insecurity, and obesity stemming from a broken food system.

Globally, ultra-processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat are more available than ever before, particularly in low and middle-income countries such as South Africa. Diets high in these components significantly increase the risk of people developing non-communicable diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

According to Statistics South Africa, she said, more and more people were dying from non-communicable diseases than ever before. Diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease rank among the top 10 leading causes of natural deaths in South Africa, based on the latest figures from 2017.

Heala CEO Nzama Mbalati said the alliance particularly wished Motsoaledi to speed up regulation on food labelling to assist ordinary South Africans in making informed food choices, to initiate co-ordinated mechanisms and resource mobilisation towards the government and civil society as well as support improvement of the school food environment, champion the taxation and regulation of unhealthy products such as sugary drinks, tobacco and alcohol.

Zimela said Heala believed the government had ample evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of the Health Promotion Levy (HPL) and Front-of-Pack Warning Labels (FOPL) in addressing many of the health issues plaguing ordinary South Africans.

She said that previous HPL evidence had shown that public health policies which increased the price of harmful products could reduce consumption. However, she said there was potential to do even more and that the government could allocate the funds generated from the levy towards addressing issues of hunger and poverty by increasing the child grant and subsidising healthier foods.

She said Heala called on Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana to protect the gains made by the levy by increasing it to 20%, and expanding it to include fruit juices.

“We also urge the health minister to fast-track the implementation of easy-to-read warning labels and empower ordinary South Africans to make better food choices,” said Zimela.

In South Africa, she said, essential nutritional information was buried at the back of canned products, boxes and bottles, making it difficult for consumers to read or decipher the food labels, adding that implementing front-of-package labelling could translate necessary nutritional information into simple language and prominently display it on the front of food products.

The FOPL regulation will also protect children from predatory marketing practices employed by food manufacturers who use fancy marketing strategies to seduce vulnerable children to become addicted to unhealthy food.

The South African health system is buckling under the weight of non-communicable diseases. Two years ago, researchers found that overweight and obesity cost South Africa’s health system R33 billion (US$1.9bn) a year. This represents 15.38% of the government’s health expenditure and is equivalent to 0.67% of GDP. The annual per person cost of overweight and obesity was R2 769. The cost of inaction in addressing this issue for both the state and the individual is too high.

Mbalati added that Heala remained committed to holding government leaders accountable for their responsibility in ensuring that the food environment benefited ordinary people rather than industry profits.

“Heala is confident in Dr Motsoaledi’s expertise, enthusiasm and the political will he demonstrated in his previous tenure as health minister, during which he prioritised pivotal public health policies and initiatives aimed at improving the health of all South Africans,” Mbalati said.

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