Is there kangaroo in your buffalo stew?

2013-04-21 10:00

Every department passes the buck, until it ends up on your plate.

State policing of South Africa’s meat standards is in a shambles, making it possible for tons of kangaroo and water buffalo meat to be imported to South Africa each year without consumers knowing where the meat lands up.

This picture emerged in the wake of an outcry following City Press’ coverage of the meat-labelling scandal last week.

Industry experts said enforcement of meat-standard regulations was so bad it left the door open for unscrupulous producers to mislabel meats – and even pass off cheap meats as expensive cuts.

This week, City Press established that: »?12 years after meat-safety laws requiring the creation of an independent abattoir inspectorate were passed, the inspectorate is has not been fully implemented;

»?The lack of an independent inspectorate is now the focus of an acrimonious fight between the red-meat industry and the department of agriculture;

»?There are too few state-appointed environmental health officers to police meat safety and labelling at the provincial and municipal levels;

»?Current import permits do not provide enough information to allow authorities to track legally imported exotic meats, such as kangaroo, from customs to shops;

»?The Meat Safety Act only provides for a R5?000 fine for a transgressor; and

»?Different parts of the meat value chain fall under different government departments, leading to glaring failures in policing.

The safety and correct labelling of more than 10?million animals slaughtered yearly in South Africa for red meat alone falls under three departments: agriculture, health, and trade and industry.

They are also responsible for policing and regulating more than 400?000 tons of beef, pork and poultry imports.

This excludes exotic meat imports, like the 60 tons a month of kangaroo.

George Southey, of the Association of Meat Importers and Exporters, said the responsibility for policing was like a “hot potato” that government departments were unwilling to pick up.

“People are saying we need to tighten legislation, but we should rather look at where enforcement happens. If we can’t enforce what’s already there, how will we add to that?”

Dr Gerhard van Niekerk, of the Red Meat Abattoir Association, said responsibility shifted from the agriculture department to the health department as soon as the meat left the abattoir gates or customs.

“It is this fragmentation and deficient communication between departments that leads to gaps in effective regulatory control,” he said.

“If legislation required jail time, people would think twice about breaking the law,” said Southey, referring to the Meat Safety Act’s R5?000-fine clause.

The industry is furious over the case of Orion Cold Storage, a Cape Town-based company outed by whistle-blowers almost two years ago for allegedly relabelling imported pork products as halal, passing off water buffalo as beef and relabelling turkeys past their sell-by date for resale.

Although the Red Meat Industry Forum handed over evidence to authorities and obtained a court interdict ordering the company to stop mislabelling the products, none of the responsible departments took action, Southey charged.

The criminal docket is still with the Hawks and the company continues to trade.

Ronel Burger of the SA Food Safety Initiative, which operates under the auspices of the Consumer Goods Council of SA, said although the state’s responsibilities were clear on paper, regulations were not enforced consistently.

She said the council was currently sharing data on its members’ product tests with the National Consumer Commission (NCC) in its investigation, which was ordered by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies.

“Large retailers, although not perfect, have a big focus on self-regulation because they have a reputation and a business to protect. Smaller, more informal operations don’t have the money to appoint the right people and send them on training, and those are the ones I worry about,” she said.

Andrew Cocks, of the SA Meat Processors’ Association, said the body hoped to start doing DNA testing on its members’ products by the end of May, and would report persistent transgressors to the NCC.

Acting NCC head Ebrahim Mohamed said: “What we’re really after is to find those who adulterate tons and tons of kangaroo and wildlife, and pass it off as other products.

“We’re also looking at the critical stages of the production lines so we can identify where cross-contamination takes place so this can be addressed.”

The departments of agriculture and health did not respond to requests for comment.

Which groups are fighting for consumer rights?

National Consumer Commission

1The National Consumer Commission is an agency of the department of trade and industry.

It is responsible for protecting consumers against unfair marketing and business practices, as well as providing a system of redress should consumers be aggrieved.

The commission says it promotes a fair, accessible and sustainable marketplace for consumer products and services.

It also promotes responsible consumer behaviour, which must be in line with the national credit regulatory legislation. It was established in 2011.

National Consumer Forum

2The National Consumer Forum is a nonprofit organisation dedicated to the protection and promotion of consumer rights and interests in South Africa.

It monitors and raises vital consumer issues.

It also focuses on the consumption of goods and services, their motives and consequences.

Apart from protecting consumers, it also champions the rights of previously disadvantaged communities to make informed decisions.

Consumer Goods Council of SA

3The Consumer Goods Council of SA is a section 21 company that represents more than 11 000 companies in the retail, wholesale and manufacturing sectors.

It has units that examine food safety and promote the industry’s understanding of the legislative and regulatory framework governing consumer goods.

SA National Consumer Union

4The SA National Consumer Union is a voluntary independent organisation.

It says it represents “millions” of consumers and organisations with an interest in consumer affairs.

It educates consumers about their rights, responsibilities and bargaining powers through education, information and protection.

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