A spaza shop owned by an Ethiopian national in KwaThema, Springs. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

There is very little hard data about what’s referred to as “fake food” in both the formal and informal sectors. This means the issue is politically charged and dominated by opinions, not evidence.

What is counterfeit food?

There are many different kinds of counterfeiting. Not all pose a risk to consumers, though some clearly do. Counterfeit doesn’t necessarily mean unsafe, and consumers aren’t necessarily unaware of counterfeiting. 

Counterfeit foods that don’t pose a risk include what are called “diverted products”. These goods are only licensed to be sold in one place or in one format but are sold elsewhere. This could include multipack items sold individually, free promotion goods being sold, or supermarket brand items being sold outside a supermarket. They could be over-runs from factories, or goods taken from food producers by employees and sold on.

Counterfeit foods that pose more of a problem include simulations – goods made to replicate branded items. They often use cheaper ingredients and can have health risks. Another risky area is tampered food: products that have been adulterated by adding materials to bulk them out, or foods that have been re-worked to refresh them after expiration dates. 

How big a problem is counterfeit food in South Africa?

We just don’t know how extensive the different kinds of counterfeiting are. It is clearly present in both formal and informal sectors of the food system. The general consensus is that it’s increasing.

How big a problem is the sale of expired food?

In South Africa perishable foods have to have an expiration date after which they can’t be sold or donated. Non-perishables – foods with a stable shelf life – have best before dates. These are for quality, not safety, and foods can legally be sold after these dates. Many people buy these products as they get them at discounted rates.

The danger is when expiration dates are tampered with and consumers are illegally sold expired food, or if best before dates are tampered with and consumers lose the ability to make their own quality judgements.

What’s missing in the debate?

The “blame” for counterfeit food currently seems to be squarely at the feet of “foreigners” – both vendors and the alleged “cartels” supplying them. Government has initiated “blitzes” on foreign-owned shops, seized goods and shut down businesses. 

However, counterfeiting exists for many reasons. These need to be considered in the debates about ‘fake’ foods.

Firstly, counterfeiting is difficult to control because of the globalisation of supply chains combined with weak national and international enforcement of trade regulations.

Secondly, regulations are poorly enforced at the local level, as evidenced by the failure of environmental health in the listeria outbreak. On the one hand technological innovations are making it cheaper to produce counterfeit foods or replica labels. On the other hand, there’s consumer complicity: people want cheap goods.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of market dominance and the barriers to entry for legitimate businesses that produce “off brand” items. To what extent are large, formal retailers being protected against market entry by smaller players? How then do smaller suppliers enter the market?

Original story from The Conversation

https://theconversation.com/