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Controversial bid for Karoo Lamb to be certified gears up

The Home of Karoo Lamb Chops, by Just-Ice on Flickr Commons

When is Karoo lamb Karoo lamb? And who owns it? This question has become urgent for lamb farmers in the Karoo now that an application has been lodged to certify Karoo lamb according to strict rules and regulations, with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries having called for objections to the registration of ‘Karoo lamb’ as a South African Geographic Indication.

Read previous Thank God It’s Food articles about the Karoo lamb certification brouhaha here and here.

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has offered “stakeholders” in the Karoo lamb industry an opportunity to object to the registration of “Karoo lamb” as a South African Geographic Indication, in response to an application by Meat of Origin Karoo to regulate the name – and the meat it represents – in the way of a Geographic Indication such as that for French Champagne or port from Portugal.

While this may seem a great idea, at first sight, there are many in the Karoo who oppose it.

A notice from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) published in the Government Gazette of 2 August invites interested parties to submit objections to the intended registration in writing within 30 days of publication of the notice.

The application states:

The process to establish the Karoo Lamb GI was initiated by the Karoo Development Foundation (KDF) in 2009 when a programme was launched to establish a protocol for the protection of the indigenous meat from the Karoo under the following guidelines and principles:

  • a transparent and full public participation process (this took place between 2009 and 2011);

  • to establish the geographical area known as the Karoo where hormone free and antibiotic free sheep can be raised in a healthy and clean environment and grazed on the indigenous shrubs of this semi-desert and arid area;

  • to establish a structure for all-inclusive membership and use of the registered name;

  • to find a scientific basis for the link between the region and the Karoo lamb product;

  • to establish the rules of origin, production practices, slaughtering practices, traceability systems.”

But many object to such registration and certification, charging that it is an attempt by people who are not themselves lamb farmers to hijack the Karoo lamb brand from those who farm it, that it will negatively affect emerging farmers, and that it will cause suffering for Karoo lamb farmers across economic categories and demographics.

Critics also charge that such certification will affect farmers in times of drought – such as the present drought which has yet to abate for swathes of the Karoo – who are forced by drought to buy supplementary feeding; and that the necessary quantities of supplementary feeding needed to keep stock alive during drought will fall foul of the proposed requirements for certification. The application calls for the limiting of supplementary feeding to 30% of the animal’s daily intake.

The application states that the traditional production practices for Karoo lamb:

… implies free range grazing on indigenous veld vegetation… Hence only sheep that feed freely from indigenous veld, in sizeable camps representative of the identified typical Karoo vegetation, and that have access to clean water, qualify for use of the name.

Free range grazing is therefore the dominant practice, but there is the occasional use of additional feeding supplements that may contain cereals, silage or any other natural plant matter, that is provided as supplementary feeding for example, to assist during dry spells and to improve the condition of animals during the reproductive cycle.

When used, these feeds may be allowed to a maximum of 30% of the animal’s total daily intake. This implies that animals should still obtain at least 70% of their food intake from the natural veld. The supplementary feeding must be given while the animal grazes on the Karoo veld and roams freely.”

Animals originating from feed lots (as opposed to free grazing) do not qualify for use of the name Karoo lamb; free range grazing or production is a specific requirement as it is acknowledged as a contributing factor to the taste or sensory attributes of the product. Likewise, animals reared on cultivated or planted pastures, do not qualify and cannot be described as Karoo lamb.”

The qualifying criteria for certified farms as set out by the applicants are that a farm must:

  • Be located in the municipalities listed in Schedule A and B, but for Schedule B farms [the schedules follow but are not included here], a detailed botanical audit is needed to verify the Karoo location and identity of the farm;

  • Have no feedlot practices on the farm;

  • Have only free-range grazing;

  • Have no planted pasture or crop fields more than a maximum size of 2 hectares;

  • Proof of origin must be provided through the traceability system of the abattoirs that need to verify that all animals delivered by the certified owner originate from farms in the defined region.

The application is specific about how Karoo lamb must be packaged, insists that slaughtering should take place within the Karoo region and that animals should not be transported more than 250km to abattoirs, which should mark them with a prescribed roller mark and meat stamp, and states that retailers may use their own certification labels (other than the prescribed labels the applicants demand) “as long as the rules for the Karoo Lamb GI contained herein are implemented”.

The application explains the terrain and diet of “Karoo lamb”.

One common characteristic of all the regions in the Karoo is the unique Karoo vegetation. Many plants provide this unique vegetation and include: aloes, mesembryanthemums, crassulas, euphorbias, stapelias, and desert ephemerals, spaced 50 cm or more apart. The distribution of some of the more dominant bushes that are palatable to animals do provide therefore a more scientific way of providing some demarcation of the Karoo region. These predominant indigenous plants are Plinthus karrooicus (Silverkaroo), Pentzia spinescens (Skaapbossie), Eriocephalus ericoides (Kapokbossie), Salsola glabrescens (Rivierganna), Pentzia incana (Ankerkaroo) and Pteronia glauca / Rosenia humilis (Perdebos).

The distinctive character of lamb from the Karoo region as defined above has been proven through sensory tests, chemical analysis of the plants, fat and meat to be intrinsically linked to the indigenous veld vegetation consisting of the species indicated above. Scientific tests done at various Universities in South Africa and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) have shown that significant differences in meat and fat exist between regions with lamb raised on a diet of Karoo plants and grass exhibiting more favourable lamb-like and herbaceous characteristics. Sheep born and raised in the Karoo region and that feed freely in sizeable camps from indigenous veld therefore taste different to other regions and thus qualify for the name ‘Karoo lamb’.”

The applicants demand that farms and producers of Karoo lamb:

  • Need to demonstrate that livestock is reared in a free range environment with access to natural grazing typical of the Karoo Region and have access to clean drinking water.

  • Drinking troughs and watering places must be regularly inspected and maintained. They should be easily accessible to livestock without posing any risk of injury.

  • Drinking troughs must be cleaned on a regular basis to eliminate the growth of algae and the deposit of waste feed and other contaminants.

It lists 11 typical Karoo shrubs of which it insists at least three must be present on the farm and it stipulates the required cold storing conditions.

Critics of the proposed certification system charge that the costs to farmers of adhering to the requirements will be prohibitive, that use of feedlots for a part of a lamb’s life is sound economic practice, and that an academic approach to regulating their industry is potentially harmful to their livelihood. DM

Parties on either side of this debate are invited to write to Thank God It’s Food Editor Tony Jackman via Daily Maverick at [email protected] – please indicate that the email is for his attention.

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