Food fraud and policing Karoo lamb

Food fraud and policing Karoo lamb
The Home of Karoo Lamb Chops, by Just-Ice on Flickr Commons

Certification is the only way to ‘police’ Karoo lamb. Through the certification mark, the identity and authenticity is verified. Without certification it would not be possible for Karoo lamb to have international protection. So be thankful for the progress that the Karoo Development Foundation has made for the protection of South Africa’s traditional food heritage names.

Tony Jackman’s very entertaining article in Daily Maverick on 22 March 2019 opened up a number of issues that need some perspective. The article started with the facts concerning the reputation of Karoo lamb emanating from its special sensory and quality attributes, but then it turned somewhat sour — probably since the “drinks were flowing” towards the end of the article.

As Tony rightly remarked, Karoo lamb has a high intrinsic marketing value — all attached to the reputation and quality of Karoo lamb.

The images of the Karoo, the unique taste of the meat and the longing for peace, tranquillity and the vast open spaces are all embedded in the Karoo name. There is no need for special marketing programmes.

When you tell people you sell Karoo lamb they immediately know what you are talking about. The name is ingrained in the minds of most consumers. This is the value, but also the inherent problem of most products that have regional identity — the so-called “Geographical Indications” such as Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, Champagne and so on. They all have “common property” (as opposed to private property) characteristics since the “reputation of the name” is equivalent to intellectual property (place, practices, culture, history) belonging to the people of the specific territory.

Common property”, in the absence of enforcement or protection, is open to fraud, free-riding and abuse by traders and the members of the region. This common property characteristic of items linked to place names is very similar to common grazing which — in the absence of rules — leads to over-exploitation and reduced value.

This is the major dilemma facing the farmers in the Karoo since it is here where many traders and restaurants free-ride on the good name of the Karoo to sell their product — which quite often is not from the Karoo, but labelled as such. As a result the Karoo farmers who practice free range on Karoo veld under very difficult circumstances are now receiving much lower prices.

Karoo farmers are sometimes the biggest culprits by fraudulently selling “Karoo lamb” produced in feed lots on a Karoo farm or from lucerne fields in the Karoo. These are not production practices typical of the Karoo and can take place anywhere in the country. It is not unique to the Karoo.

So, the quote from Derek Carstens at the end of the article needs to be challenged: “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”.

Unfortunately, reality is not that simple as a result of the opportunity for “food fraud” as explained earlier. It is therefore worrying that Karoo farmers do not see the merit of such a certification process and for some strange reason hold some sort of grudge against the whole certification process. The farmers’ frustrations are understandable, but they must also appreciate the fact that in protecting a regional product, like Karoo lamb, you need some sort of proof and documentation that verifies and ensures its authenticity.

This is why certification is important. It is the only way to ensure that a standard production process has been followed, audited and approved. Also remember that certification is performed throughout the food industry. From HACCP and ISO22000 for food safety to GLOBAL GAP for the export of fruits and so on.

It is also true that if you sell a good-quality product you cannot compromise on animal welfare, slaughter practices and meat hygiene. There are many sub-standard slaughter places in the Karoo and they will simply not qualify to handle true Karoo lamb since the reputational risk to the brand is just too high.

Certification is basically the only way to “police” Karoo lamb and through the certification mark the identity and authenticity is verified. This is also the reason why Karoo lamb is the only meat product of South Africa with protection in the EU through its geographical indication status. Without certification it would not be possible to even have this international protection. So be thankful for the progress that the Karoo Development Foundation has made for the protection of South Africa’s traditional food heritage names.

This calls us to ask why there hasn’t been more effort made for the protection of other food heritage names? And why are our large retailers, such as Woolworths and Checkers, continuing to ignore the Karoo origin of most of the lamb they put on their shelves?

Or will we just continue to misuse them as we please — with honest farmers/producers on the one hand meeting all the requirements, while dishonest farmers/producers on the other hand take shortcuts, but still want the full benefits…

We can either sit all day on the stoep and drink lager or whisky, debating this topic, or we could take some proactive steps to protect the names of the products that lie close to our hearts and in the end make us proudly South African. Finish and klaar! DM

Sara Erasmus is a postdoctoral researcher on food fraud at Wageningen University and Johann Kirsten is Chair, Meat of Origin Karoo.


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