Meating Requirements: When is Karoo Lamb Karoo Lamb?

Meating Requirements: When is Karoo Lamb Karoo Lamb?
The Home of Karoo Lamb Chops, by Just-Ice on Flickr Commons

If you saw a ‘Karoo Lamb’ certification sticker or badge on lamb chops, shoulder or shanks in a supermarket fridge, what would you presume it to mean? That the meat comes from a lamb raised on a farm in the Karoo, right? And has therefore lived on a diet of ‘Karoobossies’, which makes it taste just like, well, Karoo lamb? Right? Or would you be better off buying C-grade mutton?

We Karoo types do think about these things. You have to live among us to know what we’re like and what we think about. Lamb, mostly. Sunsets, frequently. Windmills, often. And koppies, always koppies. A sunset with a koppie in it and a windmill, with some lambs grazing in it, is particularly prized. Especially when wearing your hat. While braaing.

When we’re braaing, we like to braai Karoo Lamb. For most of us, we know it’s Karoo lamb because it came from Willem’s farm or Michael’s farm. Or from Dieter the butcher who we know gets it from his own farm.

We do feel sympathy for townies – if you’re not on a farm, you’re a townie, and consequently don’t know much about the true nature and intricacies of farming sheep – and especially for city types. How do they know whether the lamb they’re buying is from the Karoo or from anywhere else? Because there’s a sticker on it? What if the supermarket packer has just scrawled “Karoo lamb chops” on the price sticker? Is that to be trusted? Shouldn’t this be regulated?

We should be careful about that. Regulation, or over-regulation, is what happens when people in Portugal suddenly get all uppity about the rest of us presuming to take them on at their own “port” game and next thing you know we’re winning prizes for making some of it better than they do. Then they get in a big fat snit and suddenly our “port” from the Klein Karoo has to be called Cape Ruby.

But meat is not a method of making a product. It is of itself the product that goes to market. In 2009, the Karoo Development Foundation was set up to try to regulate the certification of certain meats. It sets out its mission on its website which you can read here, its “minimum standards” here, and its very extensive rules here.

The foundation sees its mission as to “act as a custodian of the intellectual property rights that vest in the name ‘Karoo’ and to work towards ensuring that the benefits that flow from commercialisation of the Karoo heritage benefits communities within the region” and its requirements of meat producers are daunting, to put it mildly, though ultimately it could perhaps best be summed up in this paragraph:

In support of the objective it has put in place a certification scheme… in terms of which producers, abattoirs, butcheries, other outlets, restaurants or any other actors that produce and/or trade in Karoo sheep meat can apply to be certified to use the mark Karoo Meat of Origin.”

A Daily Maverick/Thank God It’s Food reader brought the scheme to our attention in a letter in support of this certification scheme. He did not want to put his name to it.

The large South African food retailers source substantial lamb and beef from the Karoo and Kalahari,” he writes. “It is estimated that 30% to 40% of all lamb, mutton and beef sold in South Africa originates from these two regions and is sold to the unknowing customer under bland and uninspiring names such as free-range, natural, grass fed and so on without highlighting their true value and also the regional dimensions (grazing, water, temperature, free roaming) that shape the unique taste and other attributes of the meat products.

There is thus a strong geographical as well as cultural link in the Karoo Lamb concept. However, there is no insignia, no certification and no guarantee that the product truly originates from the Karoo when it is sold as Karoo Lamb. Karoo Lamb is South Africa’s first geographical indication (GI) in the meat industry and has achieved the unique achievement to be recognised by the European Union as a true GI — a product with similar geographical and sensory features to Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and many other lamb, ham and cheese products in Europe.”

Our reader has a beef (sorry) with Woolworths, of whom he says: “One would expect that, for instance, Woolworths would in terms of its ‘Good Business Journey’ and ‘Our Food Story’ philosophy be a responsible and ethical buyer by giving recognition to the Karoo region for producing the wonderful good quality and tasty lamb that is shaped by the Karoo plants and geography.

As it now stands, all the large food retailers source lamb from many regions and from farms with planted pastures and from intensive feed-lot operations. As a result, Karoo Lamb with its superior quality and taste is lumped together with the lamb carcasses from other regions, with the end result that the superior quality of the product is lost and consequently not monetised (in terms of better prices and returns). Now lamb is lamb and carries a commodity price while the farmers producing the better-quality and healthier product are penalised.

In terms of fair and ethical sourcing of foodstuffs, one would expect that retailers would pay differential prices based on the reputation and quality of the specific meat product.”

Woolworths says its Free Range Karoo Lamb is sourced “from various geographical regions, including the Karoo”. It has its own registered mark for Free Range Karoo Lamb which predates the mark of the Karoo Development Foundation, it says, and acknowledges that it “expanded the sourcing pool to sell Free Range Lamb from all regions, thus supporting farmers throughout various areas”.

So, there’s the terrain of this debate. And there, at the other side of that mountain, lies ou Jurie’s farm, where he’s just spent a back-breaking summer trekking to and from the dorp to buy pellets because there was no rain and the Karoobossies were bare. On his stoep, Jurie tells me he can’t afford to fix the broken fences on the eastern edge of his farm because of the drought, the wool price, the bank, the usual. He cannot control the weather and is now getting worked up. I pour him a lager to mellow him a bit.

Karoo Farm, Eastern Cape, by South African Tourism on Flickr Commons. This is a generic photo and does not represent ‘Jurie’ or any other person mentioned in this story.

The consumer thinks their meat comes from the farm, which it doesn’t,” he sighs. He’s getting on to his pet topic, feedlots. “Supermarkets think they should exploit the current trend of enforcing this narrative and spin the story of working with farmers to ensure ‘sustainability’. Consumers then demand certain criteria that then have to be met by farmers – who know more about sustainable farming than any consumer. Meanwhile, the feedlots – the biggest have their own abattoirs, deboning, packaging and distribution – conveniently go about their business, without public scrutiny and dictating the price at the farm gate.

Certification soothes the consumer’s conscience,” Jurie mumbles into his beard. “Certification, with this in mind, has also overstepped the mark. As part of the certification process of a leading upmarket supermarket chain, I had to answer questions that had no bearing or influence on the quality of my product. Questions, no doubt, that were cooked up by some neoliberal city dweller.” (He means townie.)

Farmers’ livelihoods depend on the care and well-being of their livestock. At the farm gate, these animals are indeed free-range and growth hormone free. The state of the farm’s fences, water troughs, handling facilities and vermin control has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the product.”

Like almost every other sheep farmer, Farmer Jurie’s lambs are partly reared in feedlots. I pour him another beer, just in case.

In principle, certification is a good idea since Karoo lamb is a geo-specific product that is indeed unique, like Parmesan cheese. That is, of course, only if the lamb in question has been entirely veld reared. The spectrum of karooid bushes is very broad. Only the ‘Big Six’ are applicable, which cover most of the Karoo. To veld rear a lamb is riskier, since the longer it is on the veld the longer it is exposed to the threat of predation etc. Also, a lamb will take longer to grow to slaughter weight and won’t have the amount of fat which the consumer expects.”

I pour myself a pint since Jurie now has That Look in his eye.

Farming has changed since the advent of feedlots, and whether one agrees with the process or not, it is a fact of modern agriculture. Lamb is already a premium red meat product, beyond the purchasing power of many consumers. To produce a veld reared, free range, organic Karoo lamb would need a premium too high for the consumer’s pocket, and therefore is not profitable to produce.

So a ‘Karoo lamb’, although from the Karoo, will be rounded off in a feedlot for at least two months (so as to meet the size and fat that the consumer has come to expect), by which time, has it retained any of that Karoobossie flavour? Marketing works around the concern by telling the consumer that the time spent in the feedlot is minimal and the ration all-natural and free of growth hormones.

Feedlots are also prejudiced, if not exclusively, towards indigenous sheep and cattle breeds that are better adapted to high fibre rather than high energy rations and consequently put on too much fat, earlier, with such a diet.”

But Farmer Jurie (who by now has moved on to the whiskey) has some sage advice for you and me, the ordinary consumer:

If the South African consumer is really looking for something free range, organic, hormone free etc, etc then ask your local butcher for C-grade mutton. This animal has lived and produced on the veld all her life, will have more flavour than lamb, will be cheaper and have larger cuts.”

At this point, game farmer Derek Carstens pitches up, and pitches in. I pour him a glass.

Keep it simple!” Derek says. “If it comes from a farm in the Karoo, it’s Karoo Lamb. Try telling every butcher shop in every Karoo town with a chalk board advertising ‘Lekker Karoo lam’ that he cannot say that and he will see you off the premises without so much as a totsiens.”

There’s much laughter and tut-tutting on Jurie’s stoep.

This whole ‘Certified Karoo’ is a great example of over-regulation and invariably leads to a lot of bogus claims. It is based on the so-called distinctive flavour of the ‘Karoobossie’ and, to qualify, the farmer has to have a certain percentage of this on his / her farm. Well, there is no one flavour. Lamb from Upington is different from Nieu-Bethesda is different from Aberdeen etc, simply because the grazing is different.”

Consequently, says Carstens, the take-up of the Karoo Development Foundation’s meat of origin certification has been minimal.

Seriously, how can you tell a fifth-generation Karoo farmer that he cannot call his lamb Karoo lamb? Trying to dictate how much Karoobossie he must have to qualify as certified Karoo lamb? Bureaucracy gone mad!”

Woolies crops up again. I top up Jurie’s whiskey.

I mean, have you seen the so-called Woolworths ‘free range’ protocol – all 28 pages of it?” Derek blanches. “Ridiculous.”

Jurie is shaking his head dolefully.

Basically,” Derek continues, “if the meat comes from a certified abattoir in a Karoo town it is Karoo lamb. Given that most Karoo farms are big, chances are it has had some decent space to move around in, with some Karoobossies to munch on.

My simple criterion is to try for ‘veld raised’ animals which says it all in terms of grazing and environment. And yes, in bad years they will need a little help in terms of supplementary feed. If you want the so-called ‘real thing’, make a pal with a boer and get him to slaughter you a hogget / tweetand and hang it for 10 days and then you have Karoo gold. For the rest, take the claims with a pinch of salt, or better still, rosemary. And for a real treat, try cutting your tjoppies very thin, so-called skinny or ‘dun’ tjoppies, crisp them quickly on the braai and munch them like smarties,” says Carstens.

So, as a brand person, I respect and support the fact that the ‘certified’ idea is to help create some kind of brand around the concept of Karoo lamb and to protect it and customers against such breaches as when Namibian lamb is dumped in SA and is called Karoo lamb.

However, my sense is that they have gone about it the wrong way. Bottom line should be, if it comes from a plaas in the Karoo (which only comprises some two-thirds of the country!) it is Karoo lamb or mutton. Finish and klaar.” DM


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