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Johannesburg - In early December, not quite three months ago, this column, which is published in four newspapers countrywide, revealed the results of the DNA testing of 139 samples of minced meat, burger patties, deli meats, sausages and dried meats, which had been sourced from retail outlets countrywide.
The results of that study, conducted by food scientists at Stellenbosch University last year, were shocking: 68 percent of the samples were found to contain meat that wasn’t declared on the label, pork and chicken being the most undeclared types.
The undeclared pork was the most shocking discovery, given the religious significance for the non-pork eating Muslim and Jewish communities.
A few paragraphs into that December column, I said one of the scientists involved in the study, Dr Donna Cawthorn, had revealed the findings at a meeting of the SA Association for Food Science and Technology (SAAFoST) in Cape Town the previous week, in a presentation titled “Is there horse in my wors?”
Remember, this was before the horse meat scandal broke in Britain.
Then, as now, the scientists elected not to identify the offending butcheries.
“Pity,” I wrote then, because to answer the question in her presentation title, one sample came close - Cawthorn found donkey in a processed meat sample.
“And that’s not the only unconventional butchery meat she found - four samples tested positive for goat, and another four for water buffalo.”
The story was also the subject of a radio show and a Carte Blanche insert. But the media at large didn’t pick up and run with it: There was no cabinet directive for a probe; no public demands for the offending suppliers to be named and shamed; and the National Consumer Commission - now wading into the issue and starting an investigation with the retailers - was silent.
The study results, published in the International Food Control Journal, were contained in a press release issued by the university last week, and by now few people will be unaware of them. Many news reports, local and international, are suggesting the study was sparked by the horse meat scandal in Europe. Not so. It was conducted many months ago.
The international media, which has been feasting on the horsemeat scandal for weeks, is now terribly interested in that one sample from the tip of Africa which was found to have donkey in it. It’s a small leap from horse to donkey, after all, and water buffalo heightens the shock factor.
But let’s look at the numbers again. There were 139 samples. One had donkey, four contained goat and another four water buffalo.
Eighty-six had other, less exotic undeclared meat species in them, mostly pork.
But few are talking, reporting or tweeting about that. It’s all about the donkey and the buffalo.
Another batch of DNA meat testing was done late last year, albeit a far smaller, regional exercise - and the findings did reveal the names of the products found to have meat species in them which were not declared on the label, as well as where they were bought.
Consumer Watch commissioned DNA testing of 13 samples of mince and sausages, which I bought from 10 butcheries in the Durban area, one of the country’s hot spots for adulterated processed meat products, according to the Stellenbosch University study.
There was no donkey, horse, buffalo, kangaroo or eland in my 13 samples. But the results revealed a similar level of undeclared contamination: only four samples were found not to have undeclared meat species in them, and many also contained undeclared soya or gluten, allergens which are required by law to be declared on food labels. The stores involved in that study were named - among them Spar, Shoprite and Cambridge Food - and their responses were published.
Many of the retailers acknowledged that they didn’t clean their massive mincing machines between batches of different meat species, hence some contamination, and vowed to introduce new procedures to eliminate this. In other words, in most cases they claimed the mislabelling was unintentional.
The Stellenbosch scientists came to that conclusion in their study too.
Either way, consumers were buying a product believing it contained a certain meat species, when in fact it contained one of more other species, which were not declared on the label.
To recap, here’s what DNA tests found in a few of the Durban samples, collected last year, and what the companies had to say about the findings:
Shoprite, Overport: Mutton bangers contained undeclared beef and gluten.
Response: “This is a clear contravention of our company policies as well as labelling requirements. We suspect that traces of residue of the previous species (beef) were carried over in the process of mincing and sausage-making, which can happen if the machine was not cleaned out thoroughly.”
Food Lover’s Market, Cowey Road, Durban: Freshers mutton spicy sausages contained mutton, with undeclared beef, pork, chicken and undeclared allergens soy and gluten.
Response: An audit on the branch in question revealed that they were using hog casings for the mutton sausages, and that they had not been cleaning the mincer and spice tumbler after every batch, nor using separate table surfaces for specific meat species. That was remedied, and new labels introduced.
Superspar, Queensmead: Chicken sausages contained chicken, plus undeclared beef and pork, as well as undeclared allergens soya and gluten.
Response: Surprisingly, a Spar head office spokesman said failure to declare the other meat species on the label was intentional. As the sausages were produced on site, they did not need an ingredients list in terms of the food labelling regulations, I was told. But food labelling experts argue that the exclusion applies only to unpackaged deli foods, not packs of sausages or mince. The spokesman that “a customer could unintentionally be misled by this label”, but added that there were so many products made in store that it was impractical “and very costly” to put full ingredient listings on every product.
Cambridge Food, Umgeni Road: Three packs of sausages were found to be mislabelled. The mutton bangers declared poultry in the ingredients list, but not pork, which was detected in the tests; the chicken sausages contained undeclared beef and pork; and the unspecified “plain mince” turned out to be beef and pork.
Response: The divisional chief executive of Cambridge Food, Kevin Vyvyan-Day, said the company had initiated an investigation into the packaging and labelling of meat at the Umgeni butchery.
“As a result we identified, and have taken action to remedy, the factors that contributed to the labelling issues that you have raised. For example, we discovered data entry errors in the labelling machine that prints product labels for the butchery. This resulted in duplication of certain labels and missing or incomplete labelling information.”
If all the hysteria over donkey meat results in all players in the supply chain - from abattoirs to retailers - cleaning up their acts as a result of pressure from the government, regulatory bodies and consumers, that would be a positive outcome.
Regardless of whether you care about the fact that there could be undeclared pork in your beef sausages, or goat in your mutton mince, as consumers we should be concerned about mislabelling for other reasons, too.
If we can’t trust what’s on the label, how can we trust all those who handle the meat between slaughter and cling wrap to maintain the cold chain, or to put “previously frozen” stickers on meat that has seen the inside of an industrial freezer, so that we don’t unwittingly refreeze it?
Unlike eating an exotic, undeclared meat species, those system lapses do create potential health issues.
So what can we do about all of this, other than become vegetarian?
I’ve been amused to hear some commentators advise consumers to “report” meat that looks suspicious, and retailers assuring reporters their meat undergoes strict “inspections”.
As this whole rumpus has revealed, we can’t know for sure by looking at or tasting meat products exactly what’s in them.
Only DNA testing can do that, and there’ll never be enough money, labs or scientific expertise to provide consumers with that 100 percent assurance on a scale that even begins to be meaningful.
That, coupled with the fact that this country has a dire shortage of Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries meat inspectors, means there’s a big lack of consumer protection in this area.
So we’re left with trust. If you care about what’s in processed meat, choose a retailer you believe you can trust, and stick with it.
*University of the Western Cape researchers have announced that their DNA testing of 146 biltong samples - bought mostly from Western Cape outlets - revealed that 77 percent of wild game samples were mislabelled.
Some were, in fact, beef; others less expected species - giraffe, kangaroo, pork, gemsbok etc. Whatever was cheapest to come by at the time, no doubt. Game meat substitution is not uncommon. In December Consumer Watch revealed that many of the game meat dishes on the menu of the City Grill steakhouse at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront were cheaper substitutes. Stellenbosch University food scientists sampled some of the restaurant’s more exotic offerings in September, ordering one starter and six main meals between them. They left with samples of the different meats, which they later DNA tested.
The tests revealed that while the ostrich and crocodile dishes were, in fact, ostrich and crocodile, the following substitutions had taken place: the smoked springbok carpaccio was ostrich; the warthog in two dishes was ordinary pork; the kudu in two dishes was black wildebeest; and the cooked springbok fillet was “fallow deer”.
Responding, City Grill general manager Barry Nieuwoudt denied any knowledge of the substitutions, removed all the dishes in question from the menu and vowed to probe its meat suppliers.
“Only once we are completely satisfied that the meat we have been supplied is what is described on our menu, will we reintroduce these dishes,” he said.
Nieuwoudt recently got back to me to say the restaurant had appointed a new supplier, and had DNA tested its game meats.
“We are committed to being proactive in ensuring that the game meat we serve is what it purports to be,” he said.