The case for celebrating the certification of Karoo Lamb

The case for celebrating the certification of Karoo Lamb
Tony Jackman’s shoulder of Karoo lamb, garnished with lavender because it looks pretty. But Karoo lamb is often best cooked without additional herbs or spices, so that we can taste the intrinsic flavour of the karoobossies it has feasted on. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Karoo lamb is now a protected Geographical Indication, along with Parmigiano Reggiano, Jamon Iberico and other famous foods. Karoo Lamb should be embraced by our retailers, restaurateurs, dinner clubs and culinary heroes and jealously guarded against misappropriation.

A meal, dinner event or food shopping experience gains significance when you hear the story about how, and where, the food was produced and how the region and culture shaped the identity of the product.

In our minds these backstories enhance, and nuance, the shopping or tasting experiences. Think about drinking an ice-cold glass of “real” Champagne or the satisfaction of serving your dinner guests Parma Ham or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese or Jamon Iberico. Food stories are always a conversation starter, and knowing the backstory, or the story about what makes the food unique, does improve the tasting experience.

Let’s start with the (back) story of Mont Saint-Michel lamb, also known as Agneau de Pré-salé du Mont-Saint-Michel (Salt Meadow Lamb). The story begins with the vast salt marshes that surround the iconic Mont Saint-Michel abbey, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Normandy, France.

These marshes are flooded twice daily by the tides of the English Channel. The sheep that roam these salt meadows feed on a variety of grasses and herbs that impart a distinctive flavour to their meat. The high saline content of the vegetation, combined with the coastal climate, results in lamb that is tender, succulent and imbued with the essence of the sea. For centuries the farmers have moved their livestock between different grazing areas seasonally, and during spring and summer the sheep are brought to the salt marshes to graze on the lush vegetation. 

In 1986, Mont Saint-Michel lamb was granted official recognition as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under European Union law. This designation acknowledges the unique characteristics of the lamb produced in the bay area and provides legal protection against imitation or misuse of the name. The PGI status ensures that Mont Saint-Michel lamb can only be produced within the designated geographical area and according to specific production criteria outlined in the official regulations.

Similar backstories are linked to products such as Gruyere Cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Roquefort Cheese, Jamon Iberico, Prosciutto di Parma (Parma Ham), Camembert de Normandie, Brie de Meaux, Pecorino Romano, Gorgonzola, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Aceto Balsamico di Modena and many more (see photo of examples in South African retail stores). All these European products are embedded in traditions linked to specific regions and link back to decrees made centuries ago.

Products from elsewhere in the world that are protected by GI certification are available in many food stores. (Photos: Johann Kirsten)

Trading these authentic products outside the region of origin and beyond national borders brings into play many problems in terms of traceability, labelling and misleading of consumers in retail markets and in the catering and hospitality industries. Protecting the reputation and authenticity of these products needs to be done with great care and precision to avoid the destruction of the reputational value of the product.

The Word Trade Organisation’s 1994 agreement on intellectual property (TRIPS) contains a section on Geographical Indication which enhances their protection and extends it to more countries than previous international agreements. The TRIPS Agreement requires all Members of the WTO to provide the “legal means” to provide these minimum standards of GI protection in their territories.

With the global recognition of the principle of Geographical Indications, most countries realised that they also have food products with unique (back) stories. Let’s list a few famous examples:

  • Basmati rice (India and Pakistan);
  • Phu Quoc (Vietnam);
  • Darjeeling tea (India);
  • Café de Colombia (Colombia); and
  • Poivre de Penja (Penja Pepper) (Cameroon)

South Africa has also joined the global GI family with the registration of Rooibos as a Geographical Indication in 2021 and more recently Karoo Lamb in 2023.

The GI protects the combination of the two words (‘Karoo’ and ‘lamb’) so applies only to lamb, not mutton. This has been entrenched in our folklore and heritage. The regulations are also specific about the age of the animal. In any case in any week 88% of all sheep slaughterings in SA are lamb (A1-A6).

So, next time you serve Karoo Lamb to your dinner guests, you will be able to corroborate your geographical claims, since Karoo Lamb now has its own Geographical Indication protection with its own unique story. 

So, this is what you tell your culinary friends, to assure them Karoo lamb GI can now be traced to its own “salt marshes”, in this case the Karoo’s unique herbal shrubs and grasses:

It is only Karoo Lamb when it is a lamb which was born and raised on Karoo veld in the defined Karoo region. It has never been in a feedlot, and never grazed on planted pastures.

The checks and balances build on a rigorous traceability system, internal controls implemented by the regional collective organisation, the Karoo Lamb Consortium, and integrity and honesty of all role players – from the farmer to the retailer to the restaurateur.

The unique story of Karoo Lamb is embedded in the images of windmills, sheep, farm homesteads, endless vistas, home-baked bread and hospitable evenings. These images are ingrained in the minds of many South Africans when they think of the Karoo. Because of these images, and the tranquillity and honesty of the Karoo way of life, the “Karoo” concept has become synonymous with quality, tradition and wholesomeness. The reputation for quality which is embedded in words such as “Karoo” has significant marketing potential and as such is already sought after by producers, often with little or no link to the region.

The Karoo covers almost 50% of the total area of South Africa and is sparsely populated, far away from major urban and distribution centres. This lonely corner of the Earth is home to one of South Africa’s living treasures: flocks of sheep, grazing freely among the scattered shrubs. Their meat is spiced on the hoof and described as “mouthwateringly succulent, imbued with the subtle, fragrant flavours of the Karoo bush”. It’s not surprising: they feed on wild herbs, thousands of different species of them, where normally sheep live on one type of grass. It’s a most exquisite lamb, and it is the world-renowned free-range Karoo lamb. 

While there is a unique backstory and because there is intrinsic reputational value and brand value in the name “Karoo Lamb”, there are many opportunities for opportunistic behaviour, dishonesty, shirking and plain food fraud. These include:

  • Farmers who market the lamb as Karoo Lamb from a feedlot or let the animals graze on planted pastures;
  • Abattoirs that source from farms outside the region and label them Karoo Lamb;
  • Butchers who source lamb without confirming the origin and then claim it is from the Karoo and sell to customers; and
  • The restaurateur or chef who tells the naive tourist that the lamb on the plate is from the Karoo. It is portrayed like that on the menu, but it is sourced from a feedlot in Riebeek-Kasteel.

Fortunately, science has evolved to be able to (just as we can taste the difference) detect the origin of lamb through analysis of the volatile fingerprints of lamb meat and fat. 

Dr Sara Erasmus and co-authors showed in a 2017 paper that it is possible through the application of proton-transfer mass spectrometry to authenticate the origin of the lamb. Their results showed clearly that the volatile composition of the fat from Karoo Lamb had a higher concentration of key terpenes, validating the direct link with the herbaceous plant samples. Overall, the analysis shows considerable differences between the Karoo and non-Karoo samples, indicating the typicality of Karoo Lamb.

This research was followed up by an extensive exercise to develop a database of volatile fingerprints for more regions and subregions in the Karoo. With this in hand, scientists can now very easily analyse samples from retail shelves and confirm the authenticity of the Karoo origin claims on their labels. These techniques have been successfully applied to protect the authenticity of Welsh Lamb and New Zealand Lamb.

In summary, the story of Geographical Indications, such as Karoo Lamb, is one of preserving and celebrating the unique qualities and traditions associated with regional food and drink specialities, while providing economic opportunities for producers and promoting consumer trust and transparency in the marketplace. Food with a backstory can significantly enhance its appeal and value for several reasons:

  • It has a cultural connection;
  • It serves as a powerful expression of identity;
  • It provides transparency about sourcing practices and production methods;
  • It evokes emotions, memories and sensory experiences; and
  • It stands out from the competition and commands higher value among consumers.

Food with a backstory enriches the dining experience by deepening our understanding of culture, identity, sustainability and human connection. By sharing stories about the origins and traditions behind food, we celebrate diversity, foster appreciation for culinary heritage, and create meaningful connections that transcend borders and cultures. DM

Professor Johann Kirsten is a director of the Karoo Lamb Consortium, the not-for-profit company representing farmers, abattoirs and retailers in the Karoo. Kirsten was the leader of the 20-year effort by the consortium to get official protected status for Karoo Lamb as South Africa’s first Geographical Indication.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ryckard Blake says:

    What if it grew up in the Karoo to “Sheep Status”, but is sold as Lamb?
    (Tell us amateurs what means A1 to A6, and what are the other 12% sold as?)

  • andrew66 says:

    Two years ago my dad turned 80 and wanted a spit braai for his birthday. I was fortunate in that I had to travel to Upington on business so I took along a cooler box to pick up some lamb from Calvinia on the way back.
    That evening I was in Upington I explained what I proposed to do to my client (over a braai and a few drinks). He was mortified and insisted that Kalahari lamb was far superior as it didn’t taste of the bitterness of the Calvinia shrubs. I insisted he took me to his butcher the next morning so I could sample both upon my arrival in Cape Town. I bought ten chops, a leg and whole rib from both his butcher friend and from Calvinia butchery.
    I couldn’t wait for the comparison so I invited an ex restauranter friend of mine for a braai the next day. He was game (along with my partner) to do a blind tasting. he also insisted upon buying his own chops from our local Spar.
    All that I flavored them with was kosha salt.
    First Kalahari….10/10 from everybody
    Second Cavinia….10/10 from everybody
    Spar……We all agreed that it doesn’t even taste like the same animal classification.
    The Kalahari lamb was from the butchers fathers farm, which he insisted was the best in the Kalahari.
    I would lean slightly to the Kalahari lamb, but not too much difference if all be told.
    For the birthday party I bought a Calvinia lamb as they have two outlets in Cape Town.
    Well worth the effort.

  • Annie Conway says:

    But I like Karoo mutton!

  • Brian Hutton says:

    Pleased that a test is available. Unfortunately it is very difficult to argue in a restaurant / butcher if it is or isn’t.

    I am sure that I have been caught many times on Karoo lamb being fed from feed lots and etc.

    One must just try and source your lamb, cheese and ham from reputable outlets.

  • John Colling says:

    I wholeheartedly support the concept of PGI but have my reservations about the policing thereof.
    I recently visited a local butcher looking for Parma Ham and wad delighted to learn that they had some. When I asked them where they accessed it the proudly said “we make it ourselves”. When I said that was not allowed, he assured me they had been making it for years!
    To whom can I report this transgression or why is it still happening without any action from the authorities?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options