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SA meat fraud

The great meat fraud, SA edition erupts

While news of South Africa’s own meat fraud scandal hit some headlines back in December (see our story: Is there horse in your wors? Not unlikely!), it’s only this week that, with a press release from Stellenbosch University where the study that uncovered it was conducted, the story has suddenly gathered momentum.

The study found that anything from soya, donkey, goat and water buffalo were to be found in up to 68% of the 139 minced meats, burger patties, deli meats, sausages and dried meats that were tested. In other cases, even undeclared plant matter was detected.

These ingredients were not declared on the products’ packaging labels.

The findings follow in the wake of various international food produce scandals that have made headlines. The study was published in the international Food Control journal, and was done by Dr Donna-Maree Cawthorn and Prof Louw Hoffman of the Stellenbosch University Department of Animal Sciences, in conjunction with Harris Steinman of the Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (FACTS) in Milnerton.

“Our study confirms that the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food labelling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts,” says Prof Hoffman.

The products tested were collected from retail outlets and butcheries. Of the 139 samples tested, 95 (68%) contained species which were not declared on the product labelling. The scapegoats in general were sausages, burger patties and deli meats.

Soya and gluten were found in 28% of the samples, without being identified specifically as plant material on the labels of the specific meat products.

A strong case of meat substitution was also reported. Pork (37%) and chicken (23%) were the most commonly detected animal species in products that were not supposed to contain them.

“Unconventional species such as donkey, goat and water buffalo were also discovered in a number of products,” says Hoffman, who is regarded as the world’s foremost researcher on aspects of game meat, and in January was named as the first South African to be honoured by the leading American Meat Science Society (AMSA) with its International Lectureship Award.

The researchers used various DNA-based molecular techniques to evaluate the extent of meat product mislabelling. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to detect undeclared plant proteins such as soya and gluten in the samples.

The study forms part of a larger research project in which Dr Cawthorn and Prof Hoffman uses DNA-based species authentication to identify commercial fish species and game species sold in local restaurants. Already, they have found that a large percentage of the fish and game meat sold is in fact identified incorrectly. Research into why this occurs is now under way.

“Our findings raise significant concern on the functioning of the meat supply chain in South Africa,” says Hoffman. “Even though we have local regulations that protect consumers from being sold falsely described or inferior foodstuffs, we need these measures to be appropriately enforced.”

Donna Cawthorn“Clearly, our consumers cannot generally accepted that the meat products they buy are correctly labelled,” says Cawthorn (left), who believes that the entire local meat industry needs to take more responsibility in complying with relevant regulations. “The meat industry’s failure to provide vital information on products may not only decrease consumer confidence in their organisations, but also in the meat industry as a whole.”

She believes that targets must be set to improve meat labelling practices and to address the adequacy of authentication monitoring methods: “I do not believe that the current penalties issued for non-compliance are sufficient to deter fraudulent practices.”

The researchers’ DNA-based molecular techniques aer the same used by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which resulted in the discovery of horsemeat in burger patties in four major retail chains in the UK.

See our related article: Meat substitution and fraud: FACTS optimises DNA screening method

What appeared first as a few isolated incidents of horsemeat in burgers then became a major scandal that spread across Europe. The New York Times estimates that the horse meat debacle has “now touched producers and potentially millions of consumers in at least five countries — Ireland, Britain, Poland, France and Sweden — and raised questions of food safety and oversight, as well as the possibility of outright fraud in an industry with a history of grave, if episodic, lapses despite similarly episodic efforts at stricter regulation and reform.”

The result has been the recall of masses of meat products. CE of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Alan Reilly, has said that meat was being mislabelled deliberately. “We are no longer talking about trace amounts. We are talking about horse meat. Somebody, someplace, is drip-feeding horse meat into the burger manufacturing industry. We don’t know exactly where this is happening,” Reilly said.

Consumer watchdog comments

Paul Crankshaw of SA’s Consumer Fair (also known as the National Consumer Forum), quoted in an article in Daily Maverick, said consumers should be worried about the study because it reveals flouting of the new labelling laws passed by the Department of Health a year ago. “We have had new labelling regulations since 5 March 2012, and this shows they aren’t being adhered to. The whole idea of these regulations was to tighten up the entire field of labelling so consumers felt safer about what was inside the package they were purchasing, and eating,” said Crankshaw.

“What appears to be the real problem is that the testing or the implication or the enforcement of these regulations isn’t strong enough to deter people from taking the chance of putting other things in the packaging. The game-changer here is the DNA-based molecular techniques that the university has used in the testing, which is cutting-edge, and has not found its way into our regular monitoring of meat products,” he said.

Crankshaw believes that DNA-based molecular testing could revolutionise the industry. “I think that this technique is a huge step forward for consumers, because it is unlikely that this mixing of meat products would have been picked up without this. I suspect this has been going on for a long time, and that industry got away with it for a long time.”

The consumer advocate explained that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries inspected meat from a safety point of view, but that this was not a concern in the Stellenbosch University testing, because that meat appeared to be safe.

“I think DNA-based testing is going to have to become part of the average meat company’s operational functions, if it is not there already. The Department of Health (which governs food labels) will have to reconsider its whole inspection regime. If they are not employing this technology to test and inspect, they will be missing the boat altogether,” said Crankshaw.

He added that the Department of Agriculture and Forestry was reassessing meat inspections, because these are currently being effected at municipal and regional level, and have proved not to be optimal. “The current system is not up to scratch. They are mainly concerned with safety, but it looks like the agriculture department process is going to have to speak far more directly to the health department. If both departments carry on working separately, that’s not going to help this situation,” said Crankshaw.

Retailers’ reaction

When Daily Maverick called Spar’s head office, Mike Prentice, the group marketing executive, took the call. He was very candid about the meat issue.

“We haven’t recalled any products, but what this matter did do was to definitely alert us to having a closer look at many of our suppliers. It alerted us to something we were unaware of, and in many cases we were acting in fairly good faith with our suppliers,” Prentice said.

“Subsequently we have visited and inspected many of the suppliers’ premises. The difficulty of this is that it is not an easy and cheap test to conduct. The only thing we can do is to have inspectors going round to suppliers to ensure that if a supplier is producing chicken sausages, it is only a chicken processing plant and there is nothing else going on there. We have told our suppliers that if there is any other product they have to put it on the label. Not only is this law, but the suppliers cannot mislead the consumers,” he added.

Prentice said two or three Spar stores were involved in [consumer columnist] Wendy Knowler’s earlier investigation. “One issue was a chicken sausage that was being manufactured by smaller supplier, and this was a case of absolute stupidity. It is a small local supplier with a chicken breeding facility, and a chicken abattoir. He was manufacturing chicken sausages and using pork casings, so obviously that tested positive for pork,” Prentice said.

“When we got the results of that test we sat down with him, and he said he hadn’t realised. We told him that he had to relabel his product: ‘Chicken sausage in pork casing’. We didn’t have any problems with exotic meats in all of our tests. The big concern was the mislabelling of the pork product – like chicken products which contained pork – which was unacceptable, because this affects people’s religious beliefs. We also had an issue with chicken patties that contained some pork, and beef patties that contained pork.”

In a statement, Whitey Basson, the CEO of the Shoprite group, which includes Shoprite, Checkers, Checkers Hyper, OK and Usave, said the Stellenbosch University study helped “create transparency in the food chain so that consumers as well as retailers have total peace of mind about the products sold in the retail industry”.

“We do not believe that any of our suppliers, who are reputable companies, would transgress food standards and labelling regulations, but should any of these suppliers be implicated in the study, Shoprite will penalise them in the strongest terms,” Basson said, and added that meat products sold by the supermarket group’s butcheries were supplied by “local approved abattoirs as well as suppliers whose products are subjected to DNA analysis on a regular basis” to ensure that meat products contain what was stated on their labels.

Woolworths said in a statement it was not affected by “recent incidents of contamination”. The retailers said it specified sources which suppliers used to get meat from. “To verify the effectiveness of these controls we perform random checks, such as DNA testing. In addition, all Woolworths suppliers are audited independently by various inspection services and are visited regularly by the Woolworths technical team to ensure that the highest standards are maintained,” the statement read.

The meat in this story, says Daily Maverick, is that consumers have every right to know what is in their meat, and what they are putting in their mouths. “Customers should demand that retailers aren’t aloof towards their supplier’s supply chain, and should lobby the departments of agriculture and health to get their house in order.

“The thought that you might be biting into donkey, goat, pork or buffalo when you next bite a burger leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It breaks consumer trust, it is offensive for the religious, and cheats buyers who are paying hard-earned cash for meat that isn’t what they think it is.”

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