Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 28 March 2013

Meet your meat

Last month a meat scandal hit South Africa. On Tuesday parliamentarians spent the day discussing the issue with industry experts and swapping scare stories about the more shady side of the industry. How do we cut through the gristle and get to the meat of the matter?

News of a study conducted by the Stellenbosch University Department of Animal Sciences and Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (Facts) first broke in February. The study tested meat products in a number of cities and found that over two-thirds contained traces (or bits, or chunks) of non-advertised meats and other goodies.

The meat lotto included donkey, goat and water buffalo. It also included soya and “undeclared plant matter” which sounds like something you’d say to the magistrate after being detained at OR Tambo International. For good measure, pork and chicken were found in some products but were not listed in the ingredients, which is sure to bring a fair degree of excitement and activity to the lives of Jewish and Muslim consumers.

As a vegetarian of some 12 years I’m not sure if I’m the best person to poke through the guts of this one. I’m prone to teasing my canine-positive friends about what’s really in their burgers, so perhaps I lack the requisite empathy. I promise to try really hard to get over my adolescent schadenfreude and concentrate on the issues, because they are important.

Firstly, there is the issue of consumer rights. Consumers have a right to expect honest labelling and to receive goods that are bought in good faith. Mislabelling is fraud.

There’s the additional crime of lying to people so that they transgress religious dietary taboos, but that point is a bit of a red heifer – I mean red herring. If life under the kufiyyah is anything like life under the yarmulkah then observant Muslims will pay a premium to have their meat certified and checked from the abattoir to the supermarket. Communal, religious bodies are ultimately tasked with ensuring that meat is kosher or halaal and they will bear the bulk of the responsibility if things should go wrong.

Secondly, there is the issue of quality control. Even if many South Africans have no problem with the odd cut of donkey or water buffalo finding its way into the mincing machine, there are legitimate concerns around sanitation and health in an unregulated supply chain. Of course, the highly sensitive DNA tests that identify who’s who in the polony zoo aren’t a gauge of how much exotic meat makes up the final mix, but that shouldn’t encourage complacency.

Thirdly, the role of industry-related lobbies – and all other actors besides the retailers and final consumers – should be considered. About a year and a half ago, the Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF), a national representative structure and self-confessed lobby group for the industry, made a submission to the parliamentary portfolio committee on agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

The submission contains serious allegations against the department and the minister. These include a number of charges of neglect and non-performance. The one that stands out, in the wider context of the scandal, is that the department has failed to manage food safety, and that it has failed in two specific areas: the registration of abattoirs and the implementation of a meat inspection service.

In both of these areas, the forum accuses the department of contravening the Meat Safety Act. It is interesting that the original report and subsequent press briefings by Stellenbosch University and Facts refer to both these points when identifying the failures of the current system.

Lastly, the economics of the issue are important. The large retailers strenuously defended their products in the wake of the scandal and it’s highly unlikely that they’d risk financial loss by alienating richer customers. As the researchers themselves say, adulterated products are more likely to be found in smaller, more informal markets. Just as the scandal of the chicken reprocessed with saline was most likely to affect poorer consumers, so too this current issue is more likely to affect poorer consumers.

Overall, poorer consumers eat far more chicken than beef with processed meats only contributing a tiny fraction to a poor household’s basket of goods. Maybe the next investigation should be happening at KFC and Hungry Lion outlets. On the other hand the poorest households spend just over 9% of their total budgets on meat alone. In terms of socio-economic stability and public health, maybe the regulation of the abattoirs should be a priority.

According to stats produced by the department and information gleaned from other sources the domestic beef industry is fairly concentrated with a high degree of vertical integration.

The industry is a net importer of beef, although absolute levels of imports are not large, probably due to the 40% ad valorem tariffs that are slapped on. The industry has a lot less support from government than it did pre-1994, a fact alluded to in the RMIF’s submission where it laments the close relationship between its Australian/New Zealand counterparts and their respective governments.

One possible, even likely, outcome of tougher meat labelling requirements is that the price of beef products will increase and poorer consumers will substitute chicken and pork for beef. According to this academic research meat consumption in South Africa is in line with global trends: all demand for meat is inelastic with respect to price and beef is an aspirational purchase which is substituted for chicken and porn as incomes rise.

On the one hand, the poorer consumer will be the one to benefit most from tighter regulation of the supply chain in terms of receiving fair goods and higher sanitary standards. On the other hand, the poorer consumer will stand to lose the most from higher meat prices.

My gut feeling is that increased regulation will benefit the richer consumer disproportionately. It will be impossible to effectively police the thousands of small, more informal producers. More regulation will benefit the larger producers too and probably lead to more consolidation in the industry.

What would be most beneficial to poorer consumers would be a dismantling of the protectionist tariffs that are in place, but that would never fly politically. The department and the ministry could certainly not be accused of excessive professionalism but even they are not indifferent enough to the industry’s welfare to open the floodgates of cheap beef imports from South America.

An increase in activity from the department is likely and the whole problem will probably blow over in time (although probably not to any great benefit for the poor). I hope it is resolved sooner rather than later. If the old adage is true, that we are what we eat, and my carnivore friends truly don’t know what they’re eating, then how can they truly know who they are?

This is an existential nightmare I would not wish on my worst enemy. Please, Ms Joemat-Petterssen, help us settle this beef of ours before it settles our hash. DM


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