Meat fraud vulnerabilities

Meat products are notorious for being highly susceptible to fraud. Stellenbosch-based food testing consultancy, FACTS SA, outlines the issues around this problem…

So why is meat an easy target for fraud? This is due to a combination of factors, including the high cost of meat products, the similar sensory properties of different meat species, and the ease of adulterating comminuted and processed meat products.

Acts of meat fraud can have far-reaching effects on consumers, and threaten a brand’s integrity.

Historic acts of meat fraud

As of October 2022, the Decernis food fraud database (now referred to as the Food Chain ID food fraud database) lists 188 historic incidents of food fraud relating to meat. Most recorded incidents relate to the dilution or substitution of a particular meat species with another undeclared species, or with different body parts of the same species (typically offal, connective tissue or blood).

Undeclared non-meat ingredients such as plant or dairy filler materials are also sometimes added, especially to processed meat products. This type of fraud often introduces an allergenic-risk; for example, when fraudulent filler materials contain milk, soy, wheat or gluten.

Of all the historic incidents of meat fraud, the ‘horsegate’ scandal of 2013 is probably the most notorious. Hundreds of tonnes of European beef products were found to contain undeclared or improperly declared horse meat, or to be composed entirely of horse meat.

The incident revealed a major breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain, and heightened food-industry and consumer awareness around meat species authenticity.

At the same time, a local study showed a high incidence of species substitution and mislabelling in meat products sold in South Africa (Cawthorn et al., 2013).

Sixty-eight per cent (95 of 139 samples) of processed meat products collected from retail outlets and butcheries were found to be fraudulent, containing species which were not declared on the product labelling. Pork (37%) and chicken (23%) were the most commonly detected animal species. This study also identified soya and gluten as undeclared plant proteins, in 28% and 40% respectively of the collected samples.

Other acts of meat fraud

  • Addition of undeclared compounds to enhance the quality attributes or prolong the shelf life of meat products (eg colourants, preservatives such as nitrates, and water).
  • Fraudulent claims regarding country of origin, breed, production method (organic, grass-fed claims, free range) and the slaughter age of meat.
  • Thawed meat claimed as fresh is also an issue.
  • The undeclared/illegal presence of substances such as antibiotics and growth hormones.

What about unintentional mislabelling?

The mislabelling of meat products often occurs when supply chains are complex and traceability becomes difficult. Whether deliberate or unintentional, meat species mislabelling leads to compromised product authenticity and puts a brand’s image at risk.

What about cross-contamination?

Meat products may be contaminated with undeclared species during processing. The need for high production efficiencies, the use of difficult-to-clean equipment and insufficient species-control guidelines are some factors that contribute to the prevalence of cross-contamination.

Although cross-contamination is usually unintentional, it can lead to the same deterioration of consumer trust in meat products and the manufacturers producing them.

Effects of meat fraud

Food safety concerns may also be relevant in acts of meat fraud, such as adulteration with toxic substances (e.g. melamine or azo dyes), or in species that may contain veterinary drugs (e.g. race horses fraudulently sold as meat for consumption), or the undeclared addition of allergen-containing ingredients (e.g. soy, wheat and dairy).

From a religious or ethical perspective, the presence of undeclared species is highly relevant for consumers with aversions to consuming particular species. For example, people of Muslim and Jewish faiths are prohibited from consuming porcine products, while the consumption of bovine products is prohibited in Hinduism. Meat mislabelling or adulteration can have a major emotional impact on these consumer groups.

Regulating meat fraud

The Department of Health (DOH), Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) and Department of Trade Industry and Competition (DTIC) all play a role in governing different aspects of meat species control in South Africa.

There are numerous regulations and standards that relate to meat products for sale in South Africa. Depending on the type of meat product, legislation typically governs its composition and what substances are permitted and prohibited.

Interpreting the various meat regulations can be daunting. For assistance in understanding the requirements for a specific product, contact our regulatory team.

Preventing meat fraud

A comprehensive VACCP system is the most important preventative tool for food fraud. Vulnerability assessments provide insight into which materials are most susceptible to acts of food fraud.

Some valuable countermeasures for preventing meat fraud include using trusted suppliers and auditing them regularly, maintaining detailed paper trails, and testing vulnerable ingredients and products. Analytical testing is a valuable tool that can be used to gather concrete evidence on the status of a product.

To read more on testing for meat species substitution and learn which analytical techniques are favourable for meat fraud detection, click here.

Source: FACTS SA: For assistance with meat fraud, aspects of species control and any regulatory queries, please contact FACTS SA.

Other articles and resources:
Meat fraud testing: Detecting species substitution
Fish and seafood fraud: species mislabelling
Gelatine and collagen: authenticity concerns
Food fraud prevention