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Cape Town - Three of South Africa’s biggest supermarket chains have moved to reassure the public that their meats are safe after news that top local researchers had found “fraudulent meat products” across the country.
The study, published in the international Food Control journal, was conducted by Dr Donna-Maree Cawthorn and Professor Louw Hoffman of the Stellenbosch University Department of Animal Sciences, with Harris Steinman of the Food and Allergy Consulting and Testing Services in Milnerton.
While there were reports on the information last year, the saga over horsemeat in European meat products has sparked recent fears.
Hoffman told the Cape Argus the research was conducted in cities in four provinces, including Joburg, Durban and Cape Town, and at “all the major retailers, as well as smaller retailers”.
In their conclusions, the researchers write: “The potential for undeclared species to become present in meat products due to accidental cross-contamination and deliberate substitution has been demonstrated, the results of which hold considerable financial, religious, ethical and public health ramifications.
“In addition, such practices are frequently contravening legislation in South Africa and are undermining fair trade on the domestic meat market. Overall, such findings raise significant concern on the functioning of the meat supply chain in South Africa.”
Tamra Veley, speaking on behalf of Pick n Pay, told the Cape Argus: “Pick n Pay has very strict quality control measures in place, which includes supplier warranties, spot checks by our team of food technologists and spot DNA testing.
“We’d like to reassure our customers that what they read on the label is reflected in the products they buy at Pick n Pay. We have and will continue to work tirelessly to protect consumer rights in the market place.”
Woolworths, in turn, said: “Woolworths is not affected by the recent incidents of contamination.
“We have steps in place to ensure the integrity of our food, namely: we work with specific producers who share our values, we specify our product recipes and, for critical raw materials such as meat, we specify which sources our suppliers are allowed to source from… To verify the effectiveness of these controls we perform random checks, such as DNA testing.
“In addition, all Woolworths suppliers are audited independently by various inspection services and are visited regularly by the Woolworths technical team to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.”
Shoprite Group chief executive Whitey Basson, who welcomed the study, said: “We do not believe that any of our suppliers, who are reputable companies, would transgress food standards and labelling regulations, but should any of these suppliers be implicated in the study, Shoprite will penalise them in the strongest terms.”
He said Shoprite also used DNA analysis to test its meat.
The researchers found that, overall, pork was the most common undeclared animal species detected in the meat products, identified in 46 (37%) samples that did not include any indication of this species on the labels.
“Such findings are of great concern, not only economically, but also from a religious viewpoint. For instance, restrictions on the consumption of pork exist in Muslim dietary laws (Halaal) and Jewish dietary laws (Kashrut) and individuals following these religions rely on accurate labelling to select products that will not compromise their beliefs,” they wrote.
The Kashrut Department, at the Union of Orthodox Synagogues in Cape Town, said: “Kosher laws are very strict. We cannot afford to have any mix-ups at all. Therefore kosher meat and all kosher meat products are supervised and identified by full-time supervisors from our department at every single stage, from the time of slaughter until the meat/meat product is packed or packaged and then sealed with the kosher logo and supervisor’s signature.
“We believe our kosher controls will automatically prevent any of these frauds or substitutions.”
The researchers reported that anything from soya, donkey, goat and water buffalo were to be found in up to 68 percent of the 139 minced meats, burger patties, deli meats, sausages and dried meats that were tested. In other cases, even undeclared plant matter was detected.
These ingredients were not declared on the products’ packaging labels.
The researchers used various DNA-based molecular techniques to evaluate the extent of meat product mis- labelling. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to detect undeclared plant proteins such as soya and gluten in the samples.
Of the 139 samples tested, 95 (68 percent) contained species which were not declared on the product labelling. Sausages, burger patties and deli meats were the worst affected.
Soya and gluten were found in 28 percent 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 percent) and chicken (23 percent) were the most commonly detected animal species in products that were not supposed to contain them.
“Unconventional species such as donkey, goat and water buffalo were also discovered in a number of products,” said Hoffman, who is regarded as the world’s foremost researcher on aspects of game meat, and in January was named as the first South African to be honoured by the leading American Meat Science Society with its International Lectureship Award.
Asked specifically about the prevalence of pork in halaal foods, he said DNA testing did not quantify the presence of meats, but they had found “some cause for concern”.
This meant that while actual pork may not have been present in halaal foods, there had been some pork contamination, which could have been the result of mincing machines being used for both beef and pork, for example.
“Our findings raise significant concern on the functioning of the meat supply chain in South Africa,” said Hoffman.
“Even though we have local regulations that protect consumers from being sold falsely described or inferior foodstuffs, we need these measures to be appropriately enforced.”
Cawthorn, who believes that the entire local meat industry needs to take more responsibility in complying with relevant regulations, said: “Clearly, our consumers cannot generally accept that the meat products they buy are correctly labelled. 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.'
She believes that targets must be set to improve meat labelling practices and to address the adequacy of authentication monitoring methods.
“I do not believe that the current penalties issued for non-compliance are sufficient to deter fraudulent practices.”
The Muslim Judicial Council had not responded to questions by the time of going to press.
Excerpts from what the study discovered about meat products:
* On donkey meat: Perhaps of greatest concern from a regulatory, health and ethical standpoint was the detection of undeclared donkey in one meat sample sold in KwaZulu-Natal as “quality sausage”, for which the only animal species declared was beef. Since donkey is not a species commercially processed for human consumption in South Africa, there is a high probability that this indicates a further case of intentional substitution for economic gain.
* On goat meat: Goat meat is widely consumed within rural communities in South Africa and is predominantly sold on the informal market. This species comprises a very small percentage of the commercial livestock sector and its availability in supermarkets and butcheries is very limited in comparison to other domestic meat species (beef, sheep, pig, poultry). The detection of goat in one “mutton mince” and two “mutton sausage” samples collected from supermarkets was thus not anticipated and such findings can likely be attributed to intentional addition of this species, rather than cross contamination.
* On water buffalo: While water buffalo are found and consumed widely in parts of Asia, the use of this species in the South African meat supply chain is not considered common. Water buffalo meat is similar to beef from cattle in terms of its physicochemical, nutritional and flavour profiles, thus making it difficult to distinguish from the latter based on sensory attributes. The presence of water buffalo was discovered in a number of meat products analysed in this study, with cases including apparent substitution of this species for beef in mince and its addition to burger patties and sausages.
* On pork: Overall, pork was the most common undeclared animal species detected in the meat products, identified in 46 (37 percent) samples that did not include any indication of this species on the labels. Such findings are of great concern, not only economically, but also from a religious viewpoint. Restrictions on the consumption of pork exist in Muslim dietary laws (halaal) and Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and individuals following these religions rely on accurate labelling to select products that will not compromise their beliefs. The frequency of detection of undeclared pork was highest in sausage samples (52 percent), followed by mince (38 percent), deli meats (32 percent), burger patties (30 percent) and then dried meats (10 percent).
Cape Argus with additional reporting by The Star