It's knowing what's inside that counts

Saturday, 30 September 1995

California's problems with OJ are nowhere near as bad as ours...

When I left Durban in 1986 nearly everyone sold these little or large plastic bottles of orange juice with an inoffensive seal stamped onto the bottletop or label: "Approved by the Citrus Exchange for purity".

I was fond of that seal. It was my anchor amid the dark and stormy waters of seedy corner cafes and drooling bartenders who might have otherwise sold me Kool-Aid with cyanide.

Leave this country to go anywhere in the western world and you will find yourself in packet-label heaven. I'm an compulsive packet-label reader. Blame it on Lewis Carroll who convinced me when I was still quite impressionable that I should not be swigging from a bottle labelled "Drink Me" - at least not unless I was sure it was not also labelled "Poison".

This rule is especially true in packet-label heaven. The cigarette companies can stick a label in fine print on the side of the box that says quite politely, "Excuse me, this can kill you", which absolves them of all responsibility. The people who make cotton buds for cleaning out ears stick a notice on their packages that says something like "Warning" Do not insert into ear canal". Little sachets of sugar-free sweetener carry a message like "This contains saccharine which has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals". I returned to Durban in March 1994. Somewhere down the line, the Nats appeared to have tried to propitiate the gods of packet-label heaven. The citrus exchange appeared to still be around, but someone had rewritten their dictionaries. The supermarket fridge shelves were now populated with some very curious items, many of which seemed to have discovered newer meanings of the word "pure" than I am accustomed to.

  • Sweetened dairy fruit mix : Ingredients: skimmed milk, orange juice, etc. I was pretty young when I mixed milk and OJ and saw the result. Enough said.
  • Sweetened orange nectar. 50% orange juice. Why not halve the size of the bottle and add a label that says: "Add equal amount of water plus sugar to taste?". Reduce costs, and the amount of those plastic bottles that end up in the environment.
  • Another sweetened orange nectar. Minimum 60% OJ sodium benzoate, sulphur dioxide, Citruseal Juice. What exactly is the Citruseal supposed to certify here? Ten percent more fruit juice than the nearest competitor?
  • Dairy Orange Juice - large print. 70% pure - smaller print. Ingredients: OJ, apple juice, sodium benzoate, sulphur dioxide. Why not call it "orange and apple juice with preservatives, one of which is known as the poisonous in larger quantities?"
  • Orange juice sweetened pure - large print. "90% citruseal juice - small print, sulphur dioxide as preservative.
  • Orange. No sugar added, 100% pure fruit juice blend. Orange juice and fruit juice ingredients. What does that mean? One percent orange and 99% banana?

I have finally found one and only one that seems to fit the bill: Unsweetened, Squeezed Orange Juice, 100% pure, shake before use, pulp will separate, keep refrigerated. Tastes good too, except it costs about R6 a litre at the corner cafe, and R7 for two litres in a supermarket.

I have my theory as to why this is happening. All those Outspan oranges I saw in Italian supermarkets lead me to believe that most of our oranges are now being exported so that there is no longer enough to go around . I can live with that. I just want all those imposters accurately labelled so that I can walk tall up to the shelf, grab the OJ, and walk out of there knowing that if it wasn't squeezed straight out of an orange into a bottle, it's not called "orange juice".

We should be forcing all products produced for internal consumption to be subject to at least the same stringent labelling requirements demanded by the American and European markets. This would make almost all our goods ready for export to those markets without needing expensive repackaging. This would also give local consumers protection from producers who exploit loopholes in our current labelling laws to sell us less than quality products.

Anyway let me fix a couple of cups of chicory while I tell you about my search for coffee.