Understanding the ramifications of Karoo lamb certification

Sheep in the Karoo veld. Photo: Gordon Wright

Gordon Wright and Prof Johann Kirsten sat down over lunch in the Cape Winelands and discussed the issue of Karoo Lamb. Together they unpack the process and detail behind the application to certify Karoo Lamb as a Geographical Indication in order to clear up some of the confusion.

Farmers in the Karoo are faced with many challenges. The current devastating drought is the one aspect that is on the mind of every Karoo farmer. However, in normal years with decent rainfall and sufficient grazing, problems with predators, stock theft and low meat prices also keep them occupied.

One challenge, relating to low prices, is that Karoo farmers should be getting a substantive premium for their Karoo Lamb, if it were not for the unknown and often unappreciated threat of the misuse of the Karoo name. The reduction of the reputational and market value of Karoo Lamb happens through the misappropriation of the name “Karoo Lamb” by producers outside the region, by unscrupulous livestock agents, abattoirs, retailers and restaurateurs, free-riding on the images and reputation of the Karoo. By equating all lamb to Karoo Lamb and suggesting that all of it comes from the beautiful open and clean spaces of the Karoo, Karoo farmers are robbed of the chance to obtain a price that is related to the quality and authenticity of the product.

Now, finally, the South African government has come to the aid of Karoo farmers to help them move their product out of the commodity market and into the niche market of authentic and origin-based foods. Foods with a regional and specific character that can only be found in a specific region. Karoo Lamb, as defined, can thus only be farmed in the Karoo – on natural Karoo veld.

The publication of new regulations related to the registration of Geographical Indications (GIs) in South Africa in the Government Gazette of 22 March 2019 now makes it possible to register a “Geographical Indication” (GI) for an agricultural product in South Africa. Through these regulations farmers producing specific “geographically linked” products can now apply to register the rules to manage the reputation and authenticity of the product. These rules will then be enforced by the State and should help Karoo farmers, for example, to extract true value from the product they produce.

The notice of the intention to register the Karoo Lamb GI was published in the Government Gazette for public comment on 2 August 2019. The period for comments expired on 2 September 2019 after which the Department of Agriculture will decide whether to publish the final rules for the use of the term “Karoo Lamb”.

Despite years of public engagement, articles in the press, TV shows and newspaper advertisements, there is still a lot of misinformation and uncertainty around this process. People are worried about the potential impact of these regulations on their business and their livelihoods of this proposed system. It is therefore important to explain.

The term “Karoo Lamb” has an implicit meaning, has reputational and brand value and is therefore extremely valuable from a brand perspective. It resonates very well with the consumer as it presents stories and images of nostalgia, open spaces and authenticity – all elements of a solid marketing campaign. By saying: “It is from the Karoo”, one has the attention of the customer. But this intrinsic value disappears if one does not protect it. This is the same with individual brands – if one does not protect them through reporting fraud and copyright infringements, then one does not have any brand value. It is therefore important for Karoo farmers not to have this authenticity and brand value destroyed by not protecting their product identity through a collective effort.

This is what the GI intends to do. Protect the people in the Karoo who want to make a living out of producing, processing and marketing Karoo Lamb. Protect them from the retailers and livestock agents extracting good quality products at low commodity prices and from other people selling lamb not true to the Karoo identity.

The term “Karoo Lamb” implies the following:

  • A lamb as per the meat classification regulations;

  • Free-range production;

  • Raised on natural Karoo veld consisting of the typical shrubs that are representative of the Karoo region;

  • Slaughtered at an abattoir complying with the official Meat Hygiene regulations and with solid documentation and traceability systems in place;

  • No feedlots;

  • No planted pastures;

  • No antibiotics;

  • No hormones.

This should be easy to comply with and are in any case the dominant practices performed by Karoo farmers over many decades. It is this “recipe” – the standard production practice of lamb produced in the Karoo and developed by farmers in the Karoo – that informed the rules for Karoo Lamb and thus the GI regulations. We cannot compromise on hygiene and slaughter practices since this influences the quality and shelf life of the meat which is critical to chefs, restaurateurs and retailers. This is why the abattoirs’ compliance is also critical. If you want to position Karoo Lamb as a niche product then you cannot compromise on the origin and the quality.

The GI regulations will not prevent individual operators or brands from selling Karoo Lamb. For example, Checkers can have “Certified Natural Lamb” from the Karoo; Woolworths can have “Woolworths Free Range Karoo Lamb” without any problem. The only requirement is that the farms, abattoirs and retailers should comply with the regulations. Furthermore, there should be a Karoo consortium that is representative of producers, abattoirs, retailers that “license” and govern the right to produce the product. The State will then ensure that this right is enforced by policing the products sold in the trade.

A very important change with the introduction of the GI is that the auditing process will move away from the Meat Regulations since Karoo Lamb will now be governed by its own “law”. The Department of Agriculture explains this as follows:

In terms of regulation 4(4), each group that applies for the registration of a South African GI shall nominate a qualified South African auditor to audit the group. Regulation 19(1)(b) prescribes that audits by the nominated qualified South African auditor shall be conducted at least on a biannual basis, or in accordance with the frequency as mutually agreed between the Executive Officer (of the Department) and the group during registration process. Fees for auditing are determined by the nominated qualified South African auditor”.

SAMIC was however designated by DAFF to ensure that all registered South African GIs and foreign GIs, including registered foreign GIs that form part of international agreements, are protected as set out in the GI regulations; and take the appropriate action against any transgressions found as permitted for under the APS Act. These actions also include the investigation of all complaints received regarding possible abuse of a protected GI.

The Karoo Lamb consortium has, therefore, to manage and audit its members through its own auditor. If this process of self-enforcement is not done to the satisfaction of the Executive Officer of Agricultural Products Standards in DAFF, the GI regulations can be revoked.

Hopefully, this information will provide clarity and a clear understanding of the way forward for Karoo Lamb as a GI. If implemented correctly and with the buy-in of all role players, it could be a game-changer for the farming sector in the Karoo and indeed South Africa.

As a final step in establishing the Karoo Lamb GI the Department of Agriculture will in all likelihood require that a Karoo Lamb consortium should be formed consisting of all abattoirs in the Karoo region and all farmers’ associations (basically the red meat producers in the Northern Cape, Western Cape and Eastern Cape Karoo). This consortium will need to refine the protocol for Karoo Lamb so that there is one universal set of rules that apply to the production of Karoo Lamb across the whole region and that should be adopted by all farmers, traders, retailers wanting to trade in Karoo Lamb.

The ultimate benefit of this dispensation is the reduced overhead and marketing costs for everyone interested in marketing and selling Karoo lamb and a greater opportunity to trade a niche product with a substantive premium and with the additional benefit of State protection against the abuse and misuse of the Karoo name. DM

Gordon Wright is the author of Veld to Fork and Karoo Food. He sits on the national committee of Slow Food South Africa and is a passionate Karoo activist.

Johann Kirsten is the Chair of Meat of Origin Karoo, the NPC currently managing the application for the Karoo Meat of Origin certification mark.


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