KZN’s mystery meat

2013-04-15 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL came off worst in a landmark Stellenbosch University study of meat product labelling, where products included DNA evidence of other species not listed on the labels — including pork and beef, as well as water buffalo and donkey.

Records of the study obtained under the access to information law by Media24 Investigations, reveal that KZN and the Eastern Cape were the worst provinces for mislabelled food in the study.

In KZN, 36 products bought from 11 different outlets yielded 26 with undisclosed meat traces, including ostrich patties containing traces of pork, beef and mutton, and boerewors containing traces of donkey.

There were also eight instances in the province where mutton products contained traces of beef, which would be problematic for devout Hindu consumers who do not eat beef.

“Consumers cannot generally accept that the meat products they buy are correctly labelled,” said Professor Louw Hoffman of the university’s Animal Sciences Department.

“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. “But I can already see a change among retailers and I think there has been an improvement. They will in future take much more care to make sure that their labels are correct,” he said.

Sister newspapers Rapport and City Press yesterday published the identities of more than 80 products that failed food label accuracy checks in Stellenbosch University’s tests.

Hoffman led a study that tested 139 different samples of meat from over 40 different outlets in four provinces.

The results of the study were published earlier this year in the international science journal Food Control, but the names of the products and outlets from which they were sourced were only released following the Media24 application.

The records also show how different retailers shaped up against each other in the food label accuracy tests. The researchers bought and tested 21 sample products from Woolworths outlets, and found only three polony samples that contained undisclosed traces of chicken.

Of the products bought from Spar outlets, 68% contained undisclosed ingredients, as did 64% of products bought from Fruit & Veg City, 58% from Shoprite, 60% from Checkers and 58% from Pick n Pay.

Of the 11 non-franchised stores polled in the study, some of which Media24 Investigations could not track down based on the researchers’ descriptions in the data released to us, 81% contained undisclosed ingredients.

Gauteng had the lowest proportion of mislabelled products, but a large proportion of products purchased in this province came from Woolworths.

The Eastern Cape had the highest proportion of mislabelled products, although it had the least number of shops polled.

From 29 samples collected at eight different shops in the province, 24 were found to contain traces of meat not indicated on the packaging, including traces of water buffalo in beef mince and venison mince containing traces of beef.

Several of the butchers polled in the study, when approached for comment by Media24 Investigations, indicated that they had altered their labelling to reflect that their products might contain traces of other meats processed on their premises.

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.

Nigel Sunley, an independent food consultant, said consumers are “very much at the mercy of self-policing by the suppliers”, as municipalities don’t have the resources, and often also not the technical competence, to enforce food labelling regulations.

Media24 Investigations contacted the three government departments responsible for enforcing food labelling legislation for comment.

The Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment.

Department of Trade and Industry spokesperson Sidwell Medupe said an investigation into the labelling of meat products was currently under way.

“The National Consumer Commission conducted a preliminary investigation following reports that the suppliers implicated in the European horse meat issue have 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 National Consumer Commission had the powers to enforce food labelling, but as yet no sanctions had been issued against companies, although the meat investigation is ongoing.

The National Consumer Commission could not be reached for comment.Consumer Fair (formerly National Consumer Forum) has called for the investigation into meat labelling to be escalated to a “criminal matter” and for the guilty parties to be prosecuted.

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