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British Food Journal Volume 32 Issue 7 1930

British Food Journal

ISSN: 0007-070X

Article publication date: 1 July 1930


The purpose of this important Act—the short title of which heads this article—is to consolidate and amend the laws for regulating the labelling and preventing the importation or sale of food and drugs which are unwholesome or adulterated or incorrectly or falsely described, and for regulating the labelling and preventing the importation or sale of disinfectants which are incorrectly or falsely described. The Act which was very badly needed and in the words of the Minister who introduced it “long overdue” came into force on the 1st January, 1930. It completely replaces five previous Acts which had been in existence for many years, were only operative in their respective provinces, and were unsatisfactory in other respects. So inadequate indeed were they that they may almost be said to have hindered rather than helped the Department whose business it was to administer them. Moreover, if further justification were needed, and for the moment ignoring the interests of the other units of population, it may be pointed out that the present population of European descent in the Union of South Africa is nearly equal to that of twice the population of the city of Glasgow; and that in it is to be found all the administrative knowledge and technical skill on which the future prosperity of the country must depend. The Acts repealed were the Sale of Food and Drugs and Seeds Act of the Cape of Good Hope Province No. 5, 1890; the Adulteration of Food Act, Natal No. 45, 1901; the Sale of Food and Drugs Ordinance, Orange Free State, No. 32, 1906; and two acts of the Transvaal, the Sale of Adulterated and Tainted Foodstuffs, Liquors, and Medicines, Law 29, 1896, and the Storage and Adulteration of Food Stuffs, Law 6, 1898. The last Report of the Department of Public Health issued under the old conditions was for the year ended 30th June, 1929. This states that the Acts which have been repealed were so inadequate and ineffective and contained so many loopholes and ambiguities that efficient administration was in many cases impossible and adulteration even of essential foodstuffs was rife. No power existed whereby standards could be laid down, or false description, or false labelling prevented. For example the Natal Act, which was modelled on 38 and 39 Vic. c. 68 and the Margarine Act, 1897, made no provision for prosecuting the importer of adulterated or unwholesome food stuffs and legal action was only possible if the goods were being sold, and then only the actual vendor could be proceeded against. Under the Cape Province law if an imported food stuff was suspect the consignment could be detained by order of the Department at the port of entry pending analysis or further examination. In the event of the consignment being reported against as unwholeso it might be destroyed. In no case was it allowed go into commerce. In Natal, however, no powe sted in law to detain at the port materials of doubtful purity. ’Up country they went. If the examination or analysis showed that they were unfit for consumption a sort of chase ensued along the railway line after perhaps a delay of a week or more, with, of course, a correspondingly lessened chance of tracing the offending material. The Natal and Cape Province Acts were both administered from Cape Town. Thus it has happened that a firm of importers has consigned one lot of the same kind of goods to a Cape Province port, the other to a Natal port. The reason for the detention of one lot and not the other was not understood, the administration was brought into discredit while public time and money were wasted, and public health perhaps endangered. The Transvaal Act was so generally worded that it gave no protection to the consumer, while that part of Law No. 6, which it embodied, stated that foods for sale must be kept in a special compartment—clean, well ventilated and not connected with a sleeping room or stable (italics ours). It may be remarked that the Transvaal, in which province of the Union this entirely inadequate law was in operation up to the end of last year, includes the Witwatersrand district and the city of Johannesburg with a population of 350,000, the third largest city in the African continent, and the second in importance in the Union. The administration of a code of public health laws in such relatively small and densely populated countries as England, France, or Germany presents in its details the strongest possible contrast to the administration of a similar code in such a country as the Union of South Africa. The former countries are inhabited by people of the same race and language, having the same traditions, mode of life, and standards of culture. They have been long settled. They are amply provided with every means for rapid transport and communication. The existence of large commercial and industrial populations in densely peopled areas has long ago forced on public attention the needs of public health. An enlightened public opinion can readily make itself heard and felt, and in general such opinion is in hearty agreement with authority when such authority enforces the law. But in the case of South Africa and in two out of the three other Dominions, we have to consider at the outset countries of continental dimensions, and in the particular case of South Africa of a continental character if regard be paid to the variety and different levels of culture exhibited by its inhabitants. The area of the Union of South Africa is in round figures nearly half a million square miles—approximately equal to the united areas of Great Britain, France, and Germany. The population is under eight millions, let us say equal to that of Greater London! Administrative difficulties are increased by the mere physical fact of distance and sparse population. It is on record that in some up country districts which are difficult of access supplies of the more grossly adulterated—and this is saying a good deal—or more improperly described articles of food have been sent, and as the officers of the Public Health Department cannot be everywhere at the same time the sale of such things can be effected with little risk of detection. But this by no means exhausts the difficulties that have to be overcome. Out of the total population only about 1,700,000, or roughly 20 per cent. are of pure European descent. About 70 per cent. are negroes, who at the time of settlement were in a state of neolithic culture. Nor are they capable of conforming to the standard of living of the European population. They would, one and all, undoubtedly revert to their primitive condition if the influence of Europeans was, conceivably, withdrawn; about 2½ per cent. are Asiatics; the rest are described as “mixed and other coloured.” Evidently the people of European descent are the only ones who are able properly to appreciate the importance of health laws, but some of them are the very people who, by their misdoings, give the most trouble to the health authorities. Perhaps no country in the world has made so rapid a material advance or altered so profoundly as South Africa has within living memory. It is common knowledge that the gold mining industry is primarily the cause of this. It has attracted a large white population, and negroes come in large numbers to do manual work of a simple kind for a term under contract. The fact that they are under contract brings them in a special way under the protection of the law. Held as they are by the terms of the contract to reside in the district where the work which they have contracted to do lies, far removed from their natural surroundings, and having the minds of children they present a problem of special anxiety to the authorities. They have to be controlled, but their physical welfare has also to be looked to. Their exploitation by a certain class of whites has to be prevented. The last report of the Department of Public Health for the year ending 30th June, 1929, states that while the conditions of the negroes working in the gold mines is on the whole satisfactory, in certain mines it is far from being so. Thus (p. 21) it is stated that the regulations regarding rations issued to the negroes were being “deliberately evaded or not properly carried out.” The anti‐scorbutic ration of germinated beans was found not to have been issued. The bread contained less than the 64 per cent. of wheaten flour, and more than the 36 per cent. of mealie meal as laid down by regulation, and this malpractice was of course difficult, if not almost impossible, to detect after the completion of the baking process. Moreover, such bread was to sight and taste grossly inferior. As bread is an essential food stuff, and as mealie meal is cheaper than wheat flour, this is as good an instance of the kind of adulteration referred to above as could be wished for. Moreover, it is of the meanest possible description. To cheat a negro working for a shilling a day out of his bread ! It is not surprising to learn that overcrowding in quarters which are verminous and in other respects insanitary is a concomitant, that typhoid fever is prevalent to “an excessive extent” in such mines, and that “definite action and improvement are called for.” It is, however, not only the negro working in the mines who is liable to have his inability to protect himself or his ignorance exploited to his own undoing. The negro living far away from these centres of “civilization” is liable to suffer. Thus, in the early part of last year complaints from Rhodesia and subsequent investigation by the Union police authorities showed that “several registered chemists and druggists most of them having businesses in Natal” were selling in the Union and exporting to Rhodesia various nostrums specially intended for the natives (p. 59). Prosecutions were instituted under the Public Health Act, 1919, and the South African Pharmacy Board is actively co‐operating with the authorities to suppress “these disgraceful practices.” These facts well illustrate the special difficulties that arise in the process of administering a public health act when degenerate whites exploit ignorant negroes. The Asiatics are on an admittedly higher intellectual level than the negroes, but their conception of what is right and fit from a sanitary standpoint are on a level with those that we generally associate with the Orient, and as they are apparently in full agreement with that eminent exponent of the principles of the Manchester School in this country who regarded adulteration as a mere form of trade competition, they are no better than some of their European competitors when they see a chance of making money, though swindling their neighbours may be an inseparable accident of the process. It will be readily understood that in such a vast and sparsely populated region with inhabitants having widely separated standards of culture, differences of tradition, requirements and rules of life administrative difficulties must be very great. Thus the last report states that eleven medical officers travelled—during the year the report refers to—over a distance of 77 thousand miles—52 thousand by rail, the rest by road. Four out of the eleven travelled a distance of about ten thousand miles each. Their duties included the systematic general inspection of local authority areas; mines, factories and works inspection—so far as health conditions were concerned; water supply; drainage; housing, including industrial housing; overcrowding and insanitary conditions. These duties, together with others not here specified, indicate the vast economic changes that have taken place in South Africa during the last forty years. These changes are largely in the direction of industrialization and that imposes heavier duties on the officials of the Health Department and still greater vigilance in applying regulations which while up to the level of the best European standard have to be applied in the interests of the mixed community we have described. Within living memory South Africa exported only the raw products of the farm; imported manufactured stuff was consumed for the most part by the white population of the coast towns; while its manufactures were such that “a manufactured article of local origin was a rarity that excited public comment.” The Witwatersrand started on its career in 1886, and under this impulse the country began to be rapidly opened up. The war of 1899–1902 resulted in the Act of Union in 1910 The Great War did the rest. In 1917 the Department of Public Health was formed. For two years it existed as a sub‐Department of the Department of the Interior. In 1919 the importance of its work was recognised and it was made a separate Department under its own Minister—the Minister for Public Health. Under the Minister is the Secretary for Public Health on whom falls the duty of administration. The work of the Department is, as would be expected, most varied Brief reference has already been made to this. It is in contact at many points with national life. Its activities are educational, medical and sanitary.


(1930), "British Food Journal Volume 32 Issue 7 1930", British Food Journal, Vol. 32 No. 7, pp. 61-70.




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