Non-English unilingual labels on the market - Who is enforcing the laws?

BY: Gloria Mintah

Unilingual food labels in languages other than English are entirely contrary to the laws of Ghana. The Standards Authority Act, 1973 empowers the Standards Authority (Authority) to prohibit the importation into Ghana of foods which have not been certified by its governing body, the Ghana Standards Board (Board), as complying with standards; it also authorises the Board to make rules governing, among others, the packaging, labelling, advertising and selling of goods.

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By the Ghana Standards Board (food, drugs and other goods) General Labelling Rules, 1992 (LI 1541), no person shall offer for sale, distribute or import any pre-packaged food unless the food is marked or labelled with, among others, the name of the food; and any special storage conditions and handling precaution that may be necessary. The rules also require that the labels shall be printed, impressed, embossed or stamped, and labels for food meant for sale or distribution in Ghana shall be in the English language .

Situation on market

As “shall” denotes a mandatory requirement, why are supermarkets and other shops in Ghana selling pre-packaged foods (and other goods) with unilingual labels in languages other than English; were such products certified as complying with the standards; and are random samples of foods inspected by the responsible statutory authorities or their delegates on their arrival at the ports in the country? Granted, in respect of the Spanish-labelled food products, attempts have been made to comply with the requirements of the law by having the English names on the display shelves in the shop. However, that is arguably not sufficient compliance with the law, as stores’ shelves are not labels on the food. Apart from an attempt with respect to the name on the shelves, no other information has been translated into English. 


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Food warnings

What makes this very frightening is that the label of the particular product has a warning entirely in Spanish - “Puede contener trazas de gluten, crustaceos y apio” - which in English means, “May contain traces of gluten, crustacean and celery.” While the law does not specifically state that warnings with respect to food are required on food labels, one can argue that “… handling precautions …” may include warnings about the safety of the food itself, and should I be wrong, then immediate steps must be taken to amend the law to make this a specific requirement, or the Authority should immediately exercise its power to make additional or specific labelling requirements regarding warnings.

All the same and for now, if the manufacturer has found it useful or important to give any warning about the food, the information may as well be meaningful to all the consumers of the food product. In this respect, the warning is a matter of life and death for someone who is allergic to gluten and crustaceans, and with respect to celery, it is high in sodium; doctors and nutritionists will not hesitate to advise against excessive intake of salt, especially by those with high blood pressure . Having the warning in only Spanish is entirely useless to a person who might have the need to know what it is that he or she is consuming, not to mention that it violates the laws of Ghana.

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Indeed, the importer could be charged with violating both the standard laws and the Public Health Act, 2012 (Act 851), which prohibits the sale of a food that has in or on it any harmful substance, or is injurious to health; a civil action might lie in negligence should someone suffer adverse consequences from the consumption of the food; and heavens forbid, should someone die, the importer could be charged with criminal negligence, manslaughter or even murder, depending upon how egregious the circumstances are.

Someone in Ghana must rise to the challenge and enforce the laws of the land. Maybe the Ghana Standards Authority and the Food and Drugs Authority will rise to this challenge and exercise their respective statutory mandates.

 

The writer is a Food Law Specialist. Writer’s e-mail :This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.