Actually, it's perfectly legal to sell most food after it's 'expired'
Not only were spazas doing nothing wrong, but selling past-sell-by-date food is the way of the future
Last week, while police and health inspectors were confiscating “expired” cooldrinks, maize meal, mayonnaise and other foods from foreign-owned shops in Soweto, and people were losing their lives in violent protests about “dangerous” food, a chain of grocery stores in Cape Town was doing a roaring trade in “expired” foods.
Retired advertising man Dave Bester opened his first Foodies store in Cape Town in 2016, and has since opened six more with an eighth opening in Paarl next month – it’s the world’s only chain of stores specialising in selling food almost at, or shortly past its best-before dates.
The issue is not that shelf-stable food products beyond their best-before date shouldn’t be sold, Bester says. “It’s that consumers shouldn’t be made to pay ‘normal’ prices for it.”
It’s only illegal to sell or donate perishable foods – mostly food that is refrigerated, including meat and dairy – beyond its use-by dates, because that does carry a health risk. But “shelf-stable” food products marked with best-before dates – such as maize meal, packet and tinned soups, rice, non-dairy cooldrinks, flour, rice, biscuits and cereals – do not become “rotten”, “spoilt” or “toxic” after their best-before dates.
It’s a quality issue: the colours, textures and flavours may diminish slightly with time, but the products remain safe to eat. Nor is it illegal to sell them, although ideally they should be heavily discounted and disclosed by the retailer as being technically past their prime. That makes last week’s confiscation by police and health inspectors of allegedly “expired’ foods in those foreign-owned shops totally illegal.
So far, no government official has seen fit to issue a statement pointing this out, or explaining to consumers that selling food past its best-before dates may be a rip-off (if sold at full price) but it’s not a health risk.
City of Johannesburg public safety MMC Michael Sun tweeted on Tuesday: “JMPD Operation Buya Mthetho dealing with shops selling expired foodstuff at Maraisburg, this kind of ill business practice must be stopped as it’s poisoning our community.”
The tweet was retweeted 965 times and got more than 1,680 likes.
Meanwhile, in the Cape, Foodies stores do more than 31,000 sales of such allegedly “poisonous” food every month across its stores, 70% of those purchases being made by pensioners. “What we are doing is not only completely legal, but enabling consumers to buy safe, healthy food at a fraction of the cost they can buy it elsewhere; food that would otherwise be dumped,” Bester says.
One elderly couple regularly buys two-minute noodles and cans of vegetable soup – a pack of each makes a meal for the two of them at a cost of R9. In a country where about 22% of households have inadequate or severely inadequate access to food (Stats SA’s General Household Survey, 2016), widespread selling of heavily discounted shelf-stable food just past its best-before dates could make a massive contribution towards stemming both food insecurity and food waste.
At a National Consumer Commission (NCC) meeting on food labelling in Pretoria in 2015, a senior official expressed concern that retailers stocked goods close to their “expiry” dates, thus expecting consumers to eat a large amount of product in a short time, such as a tin of jam or fish.
When then Consumer Goods and Services Ombud Neville Melville suggested that, given that an alarming number of South Africans are food insecure, there was merit in selling certain non-perishable food products beyond their best-before dates at discounted prices, with full disclosure about the date mark and assurances about it remaining safe for consumption, several delegates reacted with fury, saying it was unconscionable to condone the selling of “rotten” food to the poor.
Local health authorities regularly have his products tested for safety, and there has never been a problem, Bester says. Of his past best-before product stock, most is between three and six months past, with cereals and canned goods being the biggest sellers.
Prices are at least half of what the products are sold for in traditional stores. For example, a massive 5kg pack of flaky wheat cereal currently sells for R49. In its October 2016 newsletter, the NCC noted that it was “shocked” to discover the Foodies concept, while not naming the company. “They claim, because a product has ... expired does not mean it’s not palatable, unsafe or that its quality is compromised,” the newsletter said.
It went on to say that the Health Department’s food labelling regulations stipulated that food not be put up for sale past its “sell-by” date – omitting to mention that it was legal to sell shelf-stable food beyond its best-before dates.
The commission vowed to “engage with relevant stakeholders and other regulators to determine the best route to stem out such practices”.
“In response to my complaint, the commissioner told me that ordinary consumers don’t understand the date marks as I do – that they understand that goods past their best-before and use-by dates were regarded as expired,” Bester said.
The misleading information was not corrected.
• It’s illegal to tamper with or remove any date mark - use by or best-before. (Sell-by is a voluntary date used by retailers for stock control.)