We expose the... meat-label scandal

2013-04-14 16:00

Here they are: more than 80 meat products that contain, among others, donkey and water buffalo meat.

City Press can today expose South Africa’s food-label lie as we publish the results of a landmark scientific study by Stellenbosch University.

The products – among them household-name retail brands – fell foul of new food-label laws in a study conducted by the university’s animal sciences department, in conjunction with the independent food and allergy consulting and testing unit.

The tests on 139 products sourced from a range of shops in four provinces – Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape – were to determine how accurately food labels reflected what was in the food consumers were buying.

The revelation that unusual species had ended up in common meat products caused a row last month, but until now the names of the products involved have remained a secret.


But a successful access-to-information application by Media24 Investigations resulted in the records of the tests being released to City Press this week.

The results show nearly 60% of the products tested included the DNA of species (including donkey, water buffalo, goat and pork, among others) not listed on the food labels.

Some products did not even include the primary ingredient they claimed to feature.

In fact, that burger you are eyeing for lunch may be more chicken than beef.

Said Stellenbosch University scientist Professor Louw Hoffman, who holds the chair of meat science at the university: “Our study confirms the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food-labelling regulations, but poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts.”

Sidwell Medupe, spokesperson for the department of trade and industry, said an investigation into the labelling of meat products was under way.

Some of the products highlighted in the Stellenbosch tests included:

» Cheese beef burgers from Food Lover’s Market in Westville, KwaZulu-Natal, which also contained the DNA of water buffalo, sheep and chicken – none of which were declared on the label;

» Mutton mince “pure” from the same Food Lover’s Market included beef, pork and chicken;

» “Quality” braai wors from Grobbies Butchery in KwaZulu-Natal, which was supposed to contain only beef, also contained pork, sheep, donkey and chicken;

» Smoked viennas from what was described in the study as “Exclusive Foods” in the Eastern Cape did not contain beef at all, as branded, but pork;

» Pick n Pay-brand wors from its outlet at the East Rand Mall promised beef on the label, but the product included the DNA of pork and sheep;

» Wors from a Gauteng outlet identified as “Sista Butchery” (but which could not be independently traced by City Press) was described as mutton sausage, but also contained beef and goat;

» House-brand beef wors from Checkers in Stellenbosch also contained pork; and

» “Mutton bangers” at the same outlet also contained beef and pork (see graphic).

Professor Louw Hoffman, who led the research team, is regarded as one of the world’s foremost meat researchers and was recently the first South African to be honoured by the leading American Meat Science Society with its International Lectureship Award.

The university emphasised that its tests could not exclude the possibility that the DNA traces found were as a result of cross-contamination from products being prepared on the same work surfaces or the inadequate cleaning of processing equipment.

It also said that the results do not imply that consumer health was generally put at risk.

The tests’ findings were subject to peer review prior to publication in an international academic journal.

The disclosure of the identity of the products comes amid a growing scandal in Europe, where horse meat has been discovered to have been sold as beef, or other meat, to consumers.

Just this week, the Dutch government recalled 50 000 tons of “beef” on suspicion that it may contain horse and because its exact origins could not be traced.

The Stellenbosch product testing took place between April and August last year on the heels of new and tougher South African regulations designed to ensure more accurate product labelling.

New regulations came into effect in March last year and are the latest in a slew of strict laws governing the treatment, grading, labelling and selling of meat.

These laws make provision for fines and even prison sentences should meat products be noncompliant, but experts say a combination of too little manpower and the high cost of testing hampers enforcement.

Said Herman Blignaut, an attorney who specialises in food-labelling matters: “Practically, it is possible the industry should try to police itself by manufacturers keeping an eye on rivals’ products to address noncompliance.”

The university said it was possible that some of the outlets and brands that had failed their label tests could now be compliant.

Trade and industry spokesperson Sidwell Medupe confirmed that the National Consumer Commission had conducted a “preliminary investigation following reports the supplier implicated in the European horse-meat issue has a presence in South Africa”.

Medupe said the commission established that the supplier had imported meat sourced in Brazil to South Africa via Sweden, but that its products had tested negative for horse meat.

He said the commission had the powers to enforce food labelling, but as yet no sanctions had been issued against companies, although the meat investigation was ongoing.

Worst cases of mislabelling

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