MASERU — When officers from the Maseru City Council raided Fahhida Supermarket last week nothing could have prepared them for the horror they were about to encounter.
In the supermarket were shelves after shelves of expired foodstuffs — all being sold on the cheap.
About 300 kilometres north of Maseru in Mokhotlong, a Chinese-owned grocery store, Tai Enterprise, was raided with the authorities confiscating expired foodstuffs worth M15 000.
A woman of Chinese descent, Chen Xluzhuze, was arrested in the crackdown and appeared before the Mokhotlong Magistrate’s Court last week.
She was later released on M600 bail.
The two incidents highlight a worrying trend in Lesotho where supermarkets sell expired products endangering the health of thousands of Basotho.
Maseru City Council (MCC) information officer, Lintle Moerane, says the council is concerned by moves by some shops to repack and sell expired foodstuffs.
But the repacking of expired foodstuffs seems to be a common practice by most of the retailers in Maseru.
An employee at a Chinese-owned store in Maseru told the Lesotho Times that it is a well known practice in most stores to repackage or erase dates on expired foodstuffs.
Business owners do not want to make losses and they do that at the expense of the consumers, said the worker who requested she was not named.
“This has been going on for years. We are made to pack the food in new containers when it reaches its expiry date. The storerooms are busy at nights with some employees washing away expiry dates. It is a common practice in most shops, especially those owned by the Chinese,” she said.
She said what was sad about the practice was that most people were not even aware that the foodstuffs would have expired and continue to buy such products because they come cheap.
“Our people are very poor. Some of them buy the food knowing very well that it has expired but because it is cheap they buy it because they can at least afford it. In fact they come looking for expired food hoping that it will be on sale,” he says.
Business owners have therefore taken advantage of vulnerability of the people to sell the expired food.
“It is such a cruel thing to do. They even make us wash rotting meat in salty water to make it taste better. They pack it in smaller quantities and reduce the price to sell it off.
“We are threatened not to say a word about the repackaging to hide the evidence that food has reached its sell-by date. Our bosses say they are in business to make profit not to look after the people they do not know,” said another employee at a Chinese shop in Butha-Buthe.
The female employee said the business owners do not care about the consumers’ needs and their safety.
“They don’t care what happens to the customers as long as they get the money. They leave broken bottled food like tomato sauce on display. Imagine what could happen if someone was to eat broken glass with the food,” she says.
But the MCC’s Moerane says the cheating retailers are playing a dangerous game by selling expired food.
She says even though there have not been any fatal cases that have been reported, expired food can be dangerous.
“People can react differently to contaminated food. Some may get sick and others may seem unharmed. Nonetheless expired foodstuffs are not good for consumption,” she says.
“We have however had reports where consumers bought foodstuffs only to realise when they got home later that the food had expired. They do not get good service from the retailers and so they come to the MCC to report such cases.”
Even though the MCC and the department of health and environment in the Ministry of Health conduct operations to remove expired foodstuffs in the supermarkets some members of the public, driven by poverty, do not see reason to do so, especially when the food is cheap.
‘Matanki Tjama says the department should not force retailers to throw away expired food.
“No one should throw away food when there are people who are hungry. The food they are throwing away still looks good and tasty. They should leave the food to us the poor because we cannot all afford to buy from expensive stores,” Tjama says.
“The food is cheaper and repacked into smaller sizes so that the prices are reduced, something you will never see with these big stores in fancy malls where they buy,” she adds.
Some people say retailers should be heavily punished for selling expired food.
“Selling expired food is as good as feeding poison to someone. And they know that they are killing people and that is why they hide evidence when the foodstuffs have passed their sell-by date.
“They should pay a heavy fine, get imprisoned and have their business licences confiscated,” says Pontšo Leema.
The Public Health Order of 1970 outlaws the selling of expired foodstuffs.
But retailers who violate the statute get a slap on the wrist with a six months prison term or an option to pay a mere M600 fine.
Leema rightly says the law must be reviewed.
“What they get now is just a slap on the cheek. They should have their licences cancelled,” she says.
A medical website says though some expiry dates relate to product taste, in some cases eating expired food triggers food poisoning.
Symptoms and health effects vary depending on the type of poisoning.
“However, common signs include cramping in the stomach area, frequent vomiting, fever, dizziness, dehydration and persistent diarrhea. The symptoms may last a few hours, days or weeks depending on the severity of the condition,” says the website.
“Some food stored past its use-by date in poor conditions can even become contaminated with the serious bacterial infections salmonella or listeria.”