Meet your meat: Researchers urge consumers to question what they eat

The Red Meat Industry Forum has called on the authors of a controversial study on the contents of minced meat products in South Africa to report suppliers who contravened the law to the authorities.

"The [forum] believes that it is incumbent on Prof Hoffman and his colleagues, if they possess incontrovertible factual evidence, to report the transgressors to the relevant authorities for investigation," said Dave Ford, chairperson of the forum on Wednesday.

The forum said it had previously brought "fraudulent and unscrupulous importing and illegal labeling practice" by a Cape Town importer to the attention of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries and the National Prosecuting Authority, who took little or no steps with regards hereto.

This was a reference to an incident last year in which the Cape Town based supplier Orion Cold Storage was accused of relabeling pork and kangaroo as halaal meat products.

Orion later filed charges of blackmail against the meat industry and the South African National Halaal Authority, which certifies meat products in compliance with Muslim slaughtering practices.

Above the law
Food labeling legislation requires that producers declare all of a product's constituents on food packaging labels. But meat producers appear to be ignoring the law.

A study conducted by food science researchers at the University of Stellenbosch last year found undeclared plant and animal species in 68% of the samples that researchers tested.

The study was published in the international journal Food Control last month.

Of the 139 products collected from retail outlets and butcheries and analysed, 95 – or almost 70% – were found to contain protein sources not declared on the product labeling, including soya, gluten, beef, water buffalo, pork, sheep, goat, donkey and chicken.

Professor Louw Hoffman of the department of animal sciences said that the study confirms that the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and that this "not only violates food labelling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts".

The authors of the study have been criticised for failing to disclose the identities of the suppliers from which the meat tested in the study was sourced, but Hoffman said this was not the function of the study.

Consumer choice
"We weren't out to name and shame. We were out to say to the meat industry 'Get your house in order'," he said.

Hoffman maintains the findings were more pertinent to questions of consumer choice than health. "There's nothing wrong with eating donkey meat if you like eating donkey meat. It's not more or less unhealthy than any other species. It boils down to the fact that you want to know what you're eating," he said.

"It's more a problem of incorrect labeling or people not adhering to the new legislation as pertains to labeling."

However, Louw also pointed out there is not registered abbatoir in South Africa that has been certified to slaughter donkeys.

"It indicates that this donkey did not go through a formal meat inspection," he said.

Rather, the meat had arrived "through the back door of a butchery".

Louw said he was particularly worried about the plant protein found in some of the samples. "Some people are particularly allergic to plant protein. If someone is allergic to soya, you'd like to know if the product you're buying contains soya," he said.

Questioning products
Louw said it was important for consumers to find out where their meat comes from.

"I'm a pain in a restaurant. I want to know where the meat comes from – was it raised in a free-range feed lot, was it humanely slaughtered? We need to ask these questions and that will get the meat producers to get their ducks in a row. But the onus lies on the consumer," he said.

Meanwhile Wayne Rademeyer, owner of the country's only water buffalo dairy, said that he could confirm the water buffalo traces found in meat products did not originate from his farm. Rademeyer's Herd produces milk for buffalo mozzarella.

Only a small number of the animals are slaughtered for meat every few months, and these are sold directly to upmarket restaurants in the Western Cape.

Water buffalo meat is typically very expensive and sells at almost double the price of regular beef, he said, but the type of water buffalo entering the market appears to be of very low quality, and used to bulk up products purporting to be beef.

"If they're selling it as beef, it has to be beef. But they're using cheaper meat to bulk it up, and they're charging higher prices for an inferior product," he said.

"It's a way of cheating the public to make more profit for the company that imports it. It's essentially fraud on the public, that's the part that I find most offensive," he said.

It is unclear whether any of the major supermarket chains were implicated in the study. A number of retailers contacted by the Mail & Guardian pointed out that the study did not specify where its research samples came from.

Woolworths said it does not believe any of its meat products were implicated in the study and that it had a number of controls in place to ensure the quality of its meat products, including random DNA testing.

"In addition, all Woolworths suppliers are audited independently by various inspection services and are visited regularly by the Woolworths technical team to ensure that the highest standards are maintained," it said.

The Shoprite Group said it was not aware if any of its products were sampled but added that meat products sold by its butcheries are supplied by local approved abattoirs and suppliers whose products are subjected to regular DNA analysis.

Whitey Basson, chief executive of the Shoprite Group, said its suppliers were reputable and he did not believe any of them would transgress food standards and labelling regulations.

"Should any of their products be implicated in the study, Shoprite will penalise them in the strongest terms," he said.

Pick n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley said the supermarket chain has strict quality control measures in place, which include supplier warranties, regular spot checks by its team of food technologists and spot DNA testing.

"Pick n Pay has and will continue to work tirelessly to protect consumer rights in the market place," she said.

​Meanwhile, the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa has said that it is confident that the major retail and independent suppliers among its members are committed to ethical and legal meat practices, and called on the industry to work with regulators to ensure that supply chain practices are.

The council said that the report was "a timely wake-up call that we cannot afford to be complacent with when it comes to compliance with food labelling standards".

"We would caution against tarnishing the reputations of several thousand meat suppliers on the basis of the report, which from our understanding, was not the intention of the study or its findings," it said.

Ronel Burger, head of the council's Food Safety Initiative, called on members to work with regulators to ensure that the supply chain practices are safe and can be trusted by consumers.

The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has pointed out that eating unconventional species such as donkey, goat and water buffalo may seem unthinkable to many South Africans but it does not pose an automatic health risk.

These animals are regularly consumed in other countries "The key element in the chain is that products must be obtained from animals slaughtered at registered abattoirs, and must undergo proper inspection and be approved as fit for human consumption," it said.

The department said that state officials were responsible for enforcing the laws concerning meat safety and correct labeling but did not comment on how thorough government is in upholding the regulations.

The health department did not respond to questions by the time of publication.

But department spokesperson Popo Maja on Tuesday told Bloomberg that the health department had last month started an investigation into how unlabeled meat sources had found their way into supermarket products. This came after UK's Food Standards Agency found that horse meat was being sold as beef in products from leading retailers.

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Faranaaz Parker
Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live.

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