The TOPIC Report : February 2015 | Main Website : topicsa.org.za.
TOPIC’s First Two Months Have Been Eventful
Since our launch in October 2014, TOPIC (An acronym for Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers) has been met with overwhelming support from consumers and media alike. Our first investigation has been a success for consumers and consumer choice activists.
Empowering consumers to make informed choices has never been more relevant as mislabeling is rife and South African shoppers alone are tasked with questioning the legitimacy of labels and marketing terms. It is imperative that consumers have a tool with which to query these, often opaque, highly technical or simply unsubstantiated, terms (like “organic”, “free-range” or “natural”).
November 2014 Nomination : Wakaberry Frozen Yoghurt
TOPIC Finding : Wakaberry does not use organic milk
In October 2014 Wakaberry was our most nominated product on social media and via our anonymous nomination email (firstname.lastname@example.org). By the middle of November TOPIC announced that as our first investigation we would research claims by nationwide frozen-yoghurt franchise, Wakaberry, that their milk products were organic and sourced from free range dairy farms.
Wakaberry's in-store branding reads: “cows on organic farms produce fresh milk” and marketing material explicitly states: “our milk comes from free-range farms”. These messages have been a prominent part of Wakaberry’s marketing campaign since the company's launch in 2011. At TOPIC we were interested in finding out if their claim to use “certified organic farms” was true.
|Numerous websites advertise that Wakaberry source their milk from certified organic farms. See below from Wakaberry's blog :
||Many references to Wakaberry's "Certified Organic" status still appear online as can be seen by clicking on this link.
The TOPIC team wrote to the Wakaberry head-office requesting information that would enable us to verify their 'organic' and 'free range' claims. Wakaberry subsequently replied that “[they] no longer claim to use organic certified dairy farms.”
Within a week of us writing to Wakaberry, the word 'organic' had been removed from their website.
We concluded that at the time we wrote to Wakaberry they were using non-organic milk. They have not indicated that they have any plans to use organic milk in their frozen yoghurt in the future.
We also inquired about their free-range claims, asking whether the 'free-range' label applies only to milk or also to other milk products that they use, such as whey powder, skimmed milk powder and buttermilk powder. We were told by Wakaberry (on 18 November) that our questions have been forwarded to their supplier(s) and that they would get back to us.
Since then we have sent a follow-up letter and are still awaiting any substantive response.
“TOPIC takes the approach of cooperating with suppliers and working together towards more accurate labelling,” says TOPIC spokesperson Peter Becker. “However, this is not possible when faced with unresponsiveness or evasiveness, so we look forward to further cooperation from Wakaberry”.
“We have good reason to believe that many products in South Africa are mislabelled ‘organic’, ‘free-range’, ‘non-GMO’, ‘preservative free’, and so on, without any basis in fact. We invite consumers to visit our website topicsa.org.za and nominate products to be investigated.”
TOPIC also advises any suppliers who are falsely labelling their products to ensure this is corrected, before they become the subject of a consumer-led investigation.
December 2014 Nomination : Woolworths Organic Milk
|Woolworth's organic milk tallied the next highest number of votes after Wakaberry, as of the middle of December. TOPIC will be engaging with Woolworths and conducting investigations. On behalf of consumers, we demand the right to know about organic dairy practices in South Africa.
Your TOPIC Nominations Accumulate
Nominations roll-over from month to month which means that no votes are lost along the way. Any nomination that is sent in via social media or anonymously via email@example.com remains on our list and the product with the highest cumulative total is chosen every month.
To date some of the other nominations include Karan beef, Wild Organics, Agave Nectar South Africa and various Woolworths’ products, including their free-range beef, chicken and eggs, as well as their organic chocolate.
Consumers are also querying the GMO status of products such as Future Life and Cocoá Fair organic chocolate. We encourage you, the public, to continue to nominate products so that ethical and honest labeling can prevail.
Consumer (& Media) Support Continues to Grow
Over thirty different publications in print, radio and online media - including Fair Lady, Good Housekeeping, Sunday Times, House & Leisure, Beeld and Men's Health, to mention just a few - have contacted TOPIC and publicly declared their support for the initiative. For us at TOPIC this exceptionally positive response further convinces us that what we do is both highly topical and necessary to ensure transparency in the marketplace.
Social media support too has been steadily growing and TOPIC’s facebook page is approaching the '500 likes' mark, and we have 120+ followers on TOPIC's Twitter feed.
Our spokesperson Peter Becker was interviewed by Michelle Constant on the SAfm Lifestyle Show in November, and again in December. Peter also spoke to Africa Melane on 567 CapeTalk in October about the necessity of an initiative like TOPIC. All of the interviews are available on TOPIC's audio channel.
Good News! Trailblazing Retailers Commit to Transparency
We at TOPIC are inspired by the fact that there is a small but growing number of retailers that have shown active support for 100% transparency in the food supply-chain. These include online organic shop Faithful to Nature, ethical farm fresh shop Garden Route Goodies (Hout Bay, Cape Town), Organic Zone (Lakeside, Cape Town), Wellness Warehouse (Cape Town & JHB), Organic Emporium (Bryanston, Johannesburg) and Harvest of Hope (Abalimi).
Retailers supporting TOPIC sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) which outlines their total commitment to transparency and traceability. These pioneering retailers are supporting the consumer’s right-to-know and are committed to accurate labeling and verifiable product claims.
A Word From Retailers Whose Outspoken Support For TOPIC Puts Consumers More At Ease
As Sean Gomes, Managing Director of Wellness Warehouse, puts it, “The terms ‘organic and natural’ are used quite loosely and without check, and there is currently no real recourse for this. Wellness Warehouse believes that the consumer should not be misled in terms of what they’re purchasing. Accurate labeling will ensure that you get what you are paying for and therefore we support TOPIC in their commitment to transparency.”
“The more people that are made conscious of the way that our food is being handled and processed and the lies that we are being told by clever marketing the better,” says Garden Route Goodies owner, Alex Peel. “There is very little by way of regulating “organic” and “free range” terms and an independent testing initiative like TOPIC will be able to confirm claims made by suppliers and producers.”
“TOPIC’s work will definitely give organics a boost and maybe create a structure that can allow suppliers to improve their rating. So even if not organic, it allows them to make improvements all the time which moves them up the scale and to be rewarded by the consumer who can now make a more informed choice” says Organic Zone owner, Allister McGregor.
“South African consumers are going to great lengths to buy products that they believe are better for them and their families,” says Faithful to Nature owner, Robyn Smith. “This market is nothing without their faith and trust in the fact that these products are better for them. This is why it is so important that the industry maintains its integrity.”
“The initiative from TOPIC is the first step I have seen in securing and building a firm foundation for the natural and organic industry in South Africa that our customers can trust,” Smith concludes.
We have further engaged with several retailers who are likewise considering supporting TOPIC and these include the Ethical Co-op and prominent members of the hospitality industry such as The Vineyard Hotel.
As part of the MOU, retailers also donate a very small monthly fee towards the testing of products. Supporting retailers are not able to influence TOPIC’s investigations, mandate or actions. TOPIC remains transparent, consumer-led and driven by the public’s nominations.
What is the TOPIC MOU?
TOPIC has drafted a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) to clearly define what is within – and what is not within – TOPIC’s scope. This document also outlines what is expected of supporting retailers; primarily that they adopt a policy of complete transparency with regard to the origins of their products.
NB : Without complete transparency, TOPIC cannot ascertain many of the product claims which are impossible to detect through laboratory tests.
As part of the MOU, retailers donate a small monthly fee that facilitates the testing of products. These retailers are unable to influence TOPIC’s investigations, mandate or actions. TOPIC resolves to remain always transparent, ethically-bound and driven by the public’s nominations.
Organic Certifiers work with TOPIC
As well as engaging with producers and consumers, we are in dialogue with several organic certifiers in South Africa. These organisations have indicated that they are pleased to be collaborating with us to ensure that labels on organic products are accurate and trustworthy.
TOPIC accepts tip offs via email, which are kept completely confidential. We invite anyone who is aware of any type of incorrect labelling to let us know via the firstname.lastname@example.org email address.
During November a forged organic certificate was brought to our attention. This counterfeit document is available via the TOPIC website. The document claims that ANR Agencies in Pietermaritzburg is certified organic for cashew and pistachio nuts by CERES (Certification of Environmental Standards GmbH).
We have confirmed with CERES that this certificate is indeed a forgery.
A case of fraud is currently being investigated by SAPS.
Introducing TOPIC’s Panel of Experts
TOPIC has attracted a panel of individuals who are well-known within the organic sector. This panel includes Mpumelelo Ncwadi (Nelson Mandela Scholar, Sainsbury Fellow at Cambridge University and founder of The Indwe Trust), Rob Small (Founder of the Farm and Garden National Trust and Co-founder of Abalimi Bezekhaya & Harvest of Hope) & Peter Becker (Consumer Advocate & TOPIC Spokesperson).
In the words of Rob Small : “The way to change the world is to buy ethical. The way to make sure something is ethical is use and support TOPIC.”
A Few Final Words
For us at TOPIC it has been a busy and engaging first two months. We are excited about the future as we continue to grow in support and strength.
We will continue to take the lead from consumers who nominate a product label on social media or anonymously through email@example.com before engaging with producers, conducting investigations, “field” testing and laboratory testing. Funding received from both consumers and retailers enables this to happen and we are grateful for all your support and encouragement.
Together we can make transparency and consumer empowerment the norm in the organic and natural industry.
With kind regards,
The TOPIC Team