An application by a Christian group challenging government regulations allowing a wide range of food packaging to be religiously certified and to carry religious signs is on hold as the government takes a second look at labelling.
In May last year, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi published draft guidelines in the Government Gazette, saying he intends changing certain provisions on food labelling.
One suggestion is that foodstuffs carrying the endorsement of specific religious entities will no longer be available. The National Coalition of Christian Groups and Individuals for Practical Equality and Protection of Constitutional Rights objected to the religious labelling, such as the halaal certification mark, which certifies that the food can be eaten by Muslims.
These signs appear on a wide range of food products such as crisps, drinks, sweets and biscuits.
The lawyer representing the group, Michael Lombard, said it was not a question of discriminating against any group, but rather that consumers should in terms of the Constitution, have the right of freedom of choice.
If foodstuffs were labelled with these signs, he said, the same products should also be made available without the labels as consumers had the right to choose.
This however, excluded processed food products exclusive to a particular religious group originating from their faith such as slaughtering prescriptions for Muslims.
The coalition, which said it represents a wide range of Christian organisations, intends to ask the court to declare that religious labelling which excluded the Christian faith unconstitutional.
Apart from saying that it was unconstitutional not being given the choice between general products (such as sweets and crisps) bearing a religious label or not, the group was also concerned about the cost implications of labelling the products.
Lombard said they feared consumers would have to pay more for the products to carry the additional costs of the labelling.
He is happy about the health minister reconsidering the labelling of food.
Lombard is of the opinion that the Pretoria High Court application prompted the government to reconsider.
He said given the fact that more than 90 percent of South Africans were Christians, these labels discriminated against them.
Lombard said the applicant and the health minister had agreed that the application be put on ice, pending the outcome of the draft regulations. “We are happy with the minister’s intention to change the present regulations. What he is suggesting is exactly what we asked for.”
The minister earlier indicated he will oppose the court bid, but never filed an opposing affidavit.
Lombard told the Pretoria News the minister’s change of heart has been welcomed by the Christian groups.