If you’re about to bite into a big, juicy beef burger, you’re trusting that you are not eating buffalo, donkey or goat. The bad news is that exotic meat may be on the menu, and there’s also a chance that you could be consuming pork with your beef, or a little pig meat with your chicken burger.
Tests conducted by Stellenbosch University show that consumers are being cheated when it comes to some local meat products. “There’s a fair share of fraudulent meat products on the South African market,” a university blog declared, calling attention to a news study that had been done by meat scientists from the university’s Department of Animal Sciences.
The study tested 139 burger patties, minced meats, sausages, deli meats and dried meats and found that 68% of the product contained water buffalo, goat and donkey meat. Soya and undeclared plant matter was also present in the meat foods. None of these items were declared on the packaging or labels of the meat products.
The products that were tested were obtained from butcheries and retail outlets, but the authors of the study didn’t say which products were tested, nor which retailers or butcheries the meat foods were bought from. The study was done by Dr Donna-Maree Cawthorn and Prof. Louw Hoffman of the Stellenbosch University with Harris Steinman of the Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services situated in Milnerton.
“Our study confirms that the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food labelling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts,” says Hoffman said when he released the research results.
“Our findings raise significant concern on the functioning of the meat supply chain in South Africa,” Hoffman added. “Even though we have local regulations that protect consumers from being sold falsely described or inferior foodstuffs, we need these measures to be appropriately enforced.”
Of the 139 samples tested, 95 (68%) contained species not declared on product labelling; soya and gluten were evident in 28% of the samples but not identified on the product labels; and meat substitution was also reported. Pork (37%) and chicken (23%) were found to be the most commonly detected animal species in meat products not supposed to contain them.
The researchers said their study “made use of DNA-based molecular techniques to evaluate the extent of meat product mislabelling”. This is the same technique that was used by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which resulted in the discovery of horsemeat in burger patties in four major retail chains in the UK.
What appeared first as a few isolated incidents of horsemeat in burgers then became a major scandal that spread across Europe. The New York Times estimates that the horse meat debacle has “now touched producers and potentially millions of consumers in at least five countries — Ireland, Britain, Poland, France and Sweden — and raised questions of food safety and oversight, as well as the possibility of outright fraud in an industry with a history of grave, if episodic, lapses despite similarly episodic efforts at stricter regulation and reform.”
The result has been the recall of masses of meat products. CE of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Alan Reilly, said that meat was being mislabelled deliberately. “We are no longer talking about trace amounts. We are talking about horse meat. Somebody, someplace, is drip-feeding horse meat into the burger manufacturing industry. We don’t know exactly where this is happening,” Reilly said.
Paul Crankshaw of SA’s Consumer Fair (also known as the National Consumer Forum) said consumers should be worried about the study because they flout new labelling laws passed by the Department of Health a year ago. “We have had new labelling regulations since 5 March 2012, and this shows they aren’t being adhered to. The whole idea of these regulations was to tighten up the entire field of labelling so consumers felt safer about what was inside the package they were purchasing, and eating,” said Crankshaw.
“What appears to be the real problem is that the testing or the implication or the enforcement of these regulations isn’t strong enough to deter people from taking the chance of putting other things in the packaging. The game-changer here is the DNA-based molecular techniques that the university has used in the testing, which is cutting-edge, and has not found its way into our regular monitoring of meat products,” he said.
Crankshaw believes that DNA-based molecular testing could revolutionise the industry. “I think that this technique is a huge step forward for consumers, because it is unlikely that this mixing of meat products would have been picked up without this. I suspect this has been going on for a long time, and that industry got away with it for a long time.”
The consumer advocate explained that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries inspected meat from a safety point of view, but that this was not a concern in the Stellenbosch University testing, because that meat appeared to be safe.
“I think DNA-based testing is going to have to become part of the average meat company’s operational functions, if it is not there already. The Department of Health (which governs food labels) will have to reconsider its whole inspection regime. If they are not employing this technology to test and inspect, they will be missing the boat altogether,” said Crankshaw.
He added that the Department of Agriculture and Forestry was reassessing meat inspections, because these are currently being effected at municipal and regional level, and have proved not to be optimal. “The current system is not up to scratch. They are mainly concerned with safety, but it looks like the agriculture department process is going to have to speak far more directly to the health department. If both departments carry on working separately, that’s not going to help this situation,” said Crankshaw.
This isn’t the first time SA has been hit by a meat ‘substitution’ scandal. In December 2012, consumer journalist Wendy Knowler wrote a column asking meat eaters: “Can you trust the labels on processed meats – mince, sausages, deli meats and burgers?”
For the piece, she cited the University of Stellenbosch research, but went out and did her own tests to experience first-hand the “widespread contraventions of the Consumer Protection Act – in terms of misleading consumers – and the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs.”
“Consumer Watch commissioned independent DNA testing of a much smaller study: 13 samples of mince and sausages, bought from 10 butcheries in the Durban area, one of the country’s hot spots for adulterated processed meat. Only four of the 13 were found not to have undeclared meat species in them, and many also contained undeclared soya or gluten, allergens which are required by law to be declared on food labels,” wrote Knowler.
“Only one (retail) product, a tray of Pick ‘n Pay English-style beef sausages, was beyond reproach – accurately declaring both the correct meat species and allergens, and complying fully with food labelling regulations,” she wrote. Similarly, only one butchery was on the level.
Knowler found a pack of “chicken sausages” which was sold at a Spar in KwaZulu-Natal that was supposed to be 100% chicken, but contained beef and pork. When Daily Maverick called Spar’s head office, Mike Prentice, the group marketing executive, took the call. He was very candid about the meat issue.
“We haven’t recalled any products, but what this matter did do was to definitely alert us to having a closer look at many of our suppliers. It alerted us to something we were unaware of, and in many cases we were acting in fairly good faith with our suppliers,” Prentice said.
“Subsequently we have visited and inspected many of the suppliers’ premises. The difficulty of this is that it is not an easy and cheap test to conduct. The only thing we can do is to have inspectors going round to suppliers to ensure that if a supplier is producing chicken sausages, it is only a chicken processing plant and there is nothing else going on there. We have told our suppliers that if there is any other product they have to put it on the label. Not only is this law, but the suppliers cannot mislead the consumers,” he added.
Prentice said two or three Spar stores were involved in Knowler’s investigation. “One issue was a chicken sausage that was being manufactured by smaller supplier, and this was a case of absolute stupidity. It is a small local supplier with a chicken breeding facility, and a chicken abattoir. He was manufacturing chicken sausages and using pork casings, so obviously that tested positive for pork,” Prentice said.
“When we got the results of that test we sat down with him, and he said he hadn’t realised. We told him that he had to relabel his product: ‘Chicken sausage in pork casing’. We didn’t have any problems with exotic meats in all of our tests. The big concern was the mislabelling of the pork product – like chicken products which contained pork – which was unacceptable, because this affects people’s religious beliefs. We also had an issue with chicken patties that contained some pork, and beef patties that contained pork.”
In a statement, Whitey Basson, the CEO of the Shoprite group, which includes Shoprite, Checkers, Checkers Hyper, OK and Usave, said the Stellenbosch University study helped “create transparency in the food chain so that consumers as well as retailers have total peace of mind about the products sold in the retail industry”.
“We do not believe that any of our suppliers, who are reputable companies, would transgress food standards and labelling regulations, but should any of these suppliers be implicated in the study, Shoprite will penalise them in the strongest terms,” Basson said, and added that meat products sold by the supermarket group’s butcheries were supplied by “local approved abattoirs as well as suppliers whose products are subjected to DNA analysis on a regular basis” to ensure that meat products contain what was stated on their labels.
Woolworths said in a statement it was not affected by “recent incidents of contamination”. The retailers said it specified sources which suppliers used to get meat from. “To verify the effectiveness of these controls we perform random checks, such as 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,” the statement read.
The meat in this story is that consumers have every right to know what is in their meat, and what they are putting in their mouths. Customers should demand that retailers aren’t aloof towards their supplier’s supply chain, and should lobby the departments of agriculture and health to get their house in order.
The thought that you might be biting into donkey, goat, pork or buffalo when you next bite a burger leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It breaks consumer trust, it is offensive for the religious, and cheats buyers who are paying hard-earned cash for meat that isn’t what they think it is. DM
Photo by Stuart Spivack.
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