Food labelling: A brief overview for consumers


In South Africa there are many regulations which relate to the production, marketing and labelling of food to protect the consumer. The most relevant law in respect of marketing and advertising to consumers is the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act (Act 54 of 1972), hereinafter referred to as the Foodstuffs Act, the Agricultural Product Standards Act as well as the National Health Act (Act 61 of 2003) and the Regulations that fall under each Act.
In order to protect a consumer from misleading information or information presented in such a way so as to confuse a consumer, the Foodstuffs Act and the Regulations relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs, hereinafter referred to as R146, govern what information must appear on a label and how that information should be presented on a product.
For consumers that may be diabetic, have certain allergies or intolerance to certain ingredients in a product it is vital that the information on a label contains a true representation of what is in a product. The presence of common allergens, for example, must be indicated in parenthesis after the name of such ingredient or in close proximity to the ingredient list. Allergen-related claims, for example “gluten-free”, may only be used if the foodstuff complies with the prescribed requirements listed in R146.
In terms of R146 certain information is mandatory and must appear on the label in the format prescribed by R146, amongst others, the following shall appear on the label:

The name and proper description of the foodstuff

The brand name of a product must be a true description of the product. If the brand name does not clearly describe the product then a clear and true description must be provided in immediate proximity to the name. It is worthy to note that if a product description refers to the flavour of a product when a flavouring was used instead of the real ingredient, for example “bacon flavoured chips”, the words “flavoured” or “flavouring” must appear in the description of the product.
The pictorial representation on a label is just as important as the description of the product as it cannot be misleading, deceptive or likely to cause a consumer confusion in any manner. Should the picture on the label of a product contain pictures of foodstuffs that are not actually in the product itself, the words “serving suggestion” may appear on the picture.

The name and address of the manufacturer, importer or seller

The name and physical address of the manufacturer, importer or seller must appear on the label. In the case of a brand being manufactured on behalf of a company the wording: “manufactured on behalf of XYZ”, may be indicated on the label and the physical address of XYZ must then appear on the label.

The list of ingredients

The ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight, which means that the ingredient present in the largest quantity appears first and the smallest, last. Food additives must be indicated in the list of ingredients and the common chemical name of a preservative shall be preceded by the word “preservative” followed by the list of preservatives in parenthesis.

Special storage instructions

Where applicable the appropriate storage instructions shall appear in bold font, upper-case letters not less than 3 mm in height.

The net contents of the container in the SI-Units in accordance with the requirements of the Trade Metrology Act 77 of 1973.

Certain provisions in the Trade Metrology Act apply to the net contents of the container, such as the net quantity indication which must comply with the minimum height requirements as prescribed by the South African National Standard.

In addition to the above, R146 regulates the manner in which certain information must be presented on the label, such as:

Date marking

Must be indicated on the label and in the following manner: “best before”, “BB” and/or “use by” and/or “sell by”. Any person is prohibited from removing or altering the date marking. It is important to note that when the “use by” or “best before” dates have been reached, it does not mean that the food is dangerous, but the risk of microbiological deterioration has started to increase.

Nutritional information

Mandatory if any claims are made on the label. If the nutritional table has been indicated on the label, whether voluntarily by the manufacturer or due to the fact that a claim has been made on the label, R146 prescribes a very specific format in which the nutritional information must be presented. Amongst other requirements, the nutritional information must be presented in the tabular format, energy content must be declared in “kilojoules” or “kJ”, and the amount of each nutrient present in the foodstuff must be expressed per 100 g/ml and per single serving.
Certain foodstuffs, however, are exempt from the requirements regarding labelling, unless of course a claim has been made. Foods such as eggs, fresh unprocessed vegetables, fresh unprocessed fruit, unprocessed fish, ready-to-eat foodstuff prepared and sold on the premises, unpacked or transparently-packed servings of foodstuffs sold as snacks on the premises of preparation, flour confectionary intended to be consumed within 24 hours and ice do not require a nutritional table.

Statements and claims

In terms of R146 certain statements and claims are prohibited or only allowed if certain requirements have been complied with. Words such as “fresh”, “natural”, “pure”, “premium”, “quality” etc., in the case of foodstuffs that are not regulated by the Agricultural Products Standards Act, shall only be permitted if the product complies with criteria stipulated in the Guidelines to the R146. Further nutrient content claims, for example “low in sodium” are also regulated and therefore as it is so strictly controlled by the Regulations, it is therefore important to understand when such descriptors and claims can be used.


The intriguing tapestry of labelling legislation in South Africa is complex and must be looked at as a whole and not each part in isolation. Many factors must now be taken into consideration when designing a label for a product in order to protect the consumer as well as the food supply chain. With new labelling Regulations in the pipeline gearing to replace R146, understanding the complex nature of our South African labelling legislation has never been more important.

Prepared for FACS by JTC (2016)