Cape Town - Incorrect labelling of food and meat products is not only unlawful and problematic for certain groups of people that avoid these for religious reasons, but undisclosed food products can have serious health implications that can be life-threatening, a city food expert has warned.
Irene Labuschagne, a senior dietitian from the Nutrition Information Centre University of Stellenbosch (Nicus), said traces of certain allergens such as soya or gluten in meat may trigger severe allergic reactions including swelling of the body, stomach cramps and shortness of breath.
She was responding to media reports about the apparent mislabelling on the country’s processed meats, which were found to contain meat species and allergens that were not disclosed on the label.
A study done by Dr Donna Cawthorn, a food scientist at Stellenbosch University on meat used by butchers in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal found that almost 70 percent of all the samples of processed meats such as mince, sausages and deli meats contained other meats that were not declared on the label.
Such labelling contravened the Consumer Protection Act and the regulations relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs which came into effect in March.
Cawthorn’s DNA testing on the meat products found that sausages were most likely to contain meat species not declared on the label.
Pork and chicken were the most undeclared in the survey, which found that 37 percent of samples had undeclared pork while 22 percent had undeclared chicken. Four samples tested positive for goat while another four were water buffalo.
A subsequent smaller survey by Consumer Watch in Durban butcheries also found that the majority of meat products had undeclared soya and gluten while DNA tests on meat dishes from a city restaurant were found to contain added substitute meat products not stipulated on the menu.
The City Grill steakhouse at the Waterfront was known for its signature dishes such as crocodile, warthog, springbok, ostrich but scientific tests on its meat menu revealed that it used meat substitutes including pig, black wildebeest and fallow deer.
Labuschagne said allergens that were found in the study could have severe symptoms including anaphylaxis – a severe, whole-body allergic reaction that is life-threatening.
“Food allergy may cause serious symptoms. Many people have what is called a food intolerance. This term refers to heartburn, cramps, belly pain, or diarrhoea.
“A true food allergy – immune response triggered by certain foods - is much less common, but symptoms may include diarrhoea, difficulty in swallowing, light headedness, fainting, and itching of the mouth, throat, skin. Food allergies can trigger or worsen asthma, eczema, or other disorders,” she said.
Dr Harris Steinman, director of Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services agreed, saying that incorrect labelling was putting people’s lives at risk. He said the reality was that some people were allergic to chicken and pork.
“I know most butchers make secret recipes by mixing beef with other meat products for instance for either flavour or to keep the price down, but it is also their responsibility to declare every ingredient on the label. A small pork protein or gluten in beef sausage can cause a major allergic reaction so consumers need to be informed of what they are buying,” he said.
Achmat Sedick, deputy president of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), said the body was “disturbed” by the news of incorrect labelling of meat.
“From Islamic point of view that is totally haraam [forbidden]. Incorrect labelling is misleading and unacceptable. This stands to highest level of condemnation and it’s contrary to the red meat policy in South Africa, which stipulates that meat producers shall state clearly what they’ve put in their meat products. Not labelling meat correctly is misleading, and such underhand producers should be taken to task,” he said.
Ian Crook, national general manager for Pick n Pay butcheries, said they carried out ad hoc DNA testing to ensure meat products were compliant with the law.
“Our butchery labels on our private label brands also carry nutritional tables, although this is not required by legislation unless a claim is made in terms of nutritional value of a product. We were very happy to be the only retailer [in the study] found to have correct, accurate labels regarding contents and additives,” he said.
Gareth Lloyd-Jones, MD of Ecowize, health and sanitation company, said the latest test highlighted the urgent need for an official food control agency in SA that would act a watchdog to “ensure that retailers comply with food labelling requirements”.
“Consumers are not getting what they are paying for… both at restaurants and at store-level, as currently food label descriptions on meat products fail to inform the consumer of all the ingredients used,” he said. - Cape Argus