The rise of fake food in our townships

What it is, how it’s done and how to protect yourself and your customers

Fake foods are flooding the South African market at an alarming rate and according to recent reports, it seems as if we have become a dumping ground for counterfeit products. It harms the economy with the country losing a large portion of its GDP every year and puts our lives at risk with the health implications that comes with consuming fake foods.

A press release issued by the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) called for coordinated legislative national efforts to deal with fraudulent, counterfeit and expired food products and other manufactured goods being sold in South Africa.

Particularly worrying is the sale of counterfeit foods and beverages to unsuspecting consumers, which poses a serious health hazard, says Matlou Setati, the food safety initiative (FSI) executive at CGCSA.

In most cases, shop owners and consumers are completely unaware that the products are counterfeit and these products are easily distributed to informal traders and spaza shops across our townships.

“Recent reports of fake food products being sold in townships calls for co-ordinated efforts by all role players, from the government through to the environmental health practitioners inspectorate, law enforcement agencies, SARS and industry organisations such as the CGCSA and the National Consumer Commission to counter this problem. The CGCSA is already playing its role by raising awareness regarding the proliferation of unauthorised sellers and resellers of barcodes, which are used for product identification,” Setati says.

She says counterfeit goods and products in South Africa include food, medicines, electrical products, clothing, shoes, cigarettes and beverages. These products find their way into the country or are manufactured in counterfeit facilities around the country. Such products are usually cheaper, which makes them easier to sell.

What is a counterfeit product?

“To counterfeit means to imitate something authentic, with the intent to steal, destroy, or replace the original, for use in illegal transactions, or otherwise to deceive individuals into believing that the fake is of equal or greater value than the real thing. Counterfeit products are fakes or unauthorised replicas of the real product. Counterfeit products are often produced with the intent to take advantage of the superior value of the imitated product.” – Wikipedia

There are many different kinds of counterfeiting and not all pose a risk to consumers. Counterfeit foods that don’t pose a risk include what are called "diverted products". These products are only licensed to be sold in one place or in one format but are sold elsewhere. These include multipack items sold individually, supermarket brands being sold outside the supermarket instead of directly off the shelf and free promotion goods.

How it’s done

Counterfeit foods that pose a huge risk are the products made to replicate branded items. They often use inferior ingredients and banned substances such as Sudan red dye colourant which is known to cause cancer and is prohibited for use in food products in South Africa. Tampered food – products that have been adulterated by adding materials to bulk them out and foods that have been tampered with to refresh them after their expiration dates – also pose a huge risk.

Counterfeiters are importing fake foods and producing them locally as well. The most common form of fake food is when the packaging of the branded product is either scanned or copied and the ingredients inside the product are of inferior quality. Counterfeiters are also known to steal over-runs of packaging and then use this packaging to package fake products or ingredients, leaving the consumer vulnerable when consuming the product.

In most cases, shop owners and consumers are completely unaware that the products are counterfeit and these products are easily distributed to informal traders and spaza shops across our townships, where there is very little control from manufacturers and brand owners.

How to spot a counterfeit food product

Consider the packaging and price. If the packaging appears different to the original product, it is most likely counterfeit. If the price is too good to be true, then it probably is. Check for spelling errors on the packaging, unclear images, strange textures, tastes and smells as well as expiration dates. In South African law, all consumable products must display a “best before" date and if you do come across a product bearing an expired date or without any date, avoid buying the product and enquire with the store owner or directly with the brand, by making use of the consumer helpline, which is easily identifiable on legitimate products.

Know what you are reading on a label:

As per the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) the meaning on the labels are as follows: 

  • Date of manufacturing means the date on which the food becomes the product as described.
  • Best Before or Best Before End means the date which signifies the end of the period under any stated storage conditions during which the product will remain fully marketable and will retain any specific qualities for which tacit or express claims have been made, However, beyond the date the food may still be perfectly satisfactory in some cases.
  • Sell By or Display Until means the last date of offer for sale to the consumer after which there remains a reasonable storage period at home.
  • Sell By Retail means to sell to a person buying other than for the purpose of resale, but does not include selling to a caterer for the purposes of his catering business, or to a manufacturer for the purposes of his manufacturing business.
  • Use By (Best Consumed Before, Recommended Last Consumption Date, Expiry Date) means the date that signifies the end of the estimated period under the stated storage conditions, after which the product probably will not have the quality attributes normally expected by the consumers and after which date the food should not be regarded as marketable.

How you can protect yourself as a retailer:

  • Always insist on a receipt when purchasing stock. It is a legal requirement in South Africa to receive a receipt after the sale of products, goods and services.
  • Buy from vendors and supermarkets who have a reputation for testing products and follow good labelling practices.
  • Check for spelling errors in the description on the packaging and check the quality of images, especially if the ink appears to be lighter in colour, and do not purchase these products to resell.
  • The name, contact details and address of the manufacturer must be visible on the packaging as well as recycling symbols and trademarks.
  • Be mindful of any “too good to be true” prices for branded products and only deal with reputable brand representatives. Ask for proof of employment when representatives visit your store to offer specials on branded stock.
  • Always look out for brand merchandisers who are visible in the stores where you purchase your stock. These merchandisers are employed by brands and their visibility means that you can be confident that these brands are authentic.

As a retailer, it is your duty to protect your customers by only selling authentic products and brands in your store. By purchasing fake food to resell, you are not only giving your customers a raw deal but you are effectively supporting a worldwide franchise of criminal activity. While the government and stakeholders take proactive steps to eliminate the threat of counterfeit food products, the retailer and consumer also need to exercise reasonable caution when purchasing food products. Educate yourself and your customers on the dangers of purchasing and consuming fake food products as this will help reduce the demand for these illegal products.