Independent Newspaper Limited
A study by the University of the Western Cape has revealed gross irregularities in the labelling of dried meat, especially wild game biltong. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
Cape Town - First it was horsemeat on Europeans’ dinner tables, then water buffalo and donkey in South African meats.
Now the holiest of South African delicacies, biltong and droëwors, have been found to contain horse and even kangaroo meat.
The latest findings are made by corresponding study author Maria Eugenia D'Amato from the University of the Western Cape and the work was mostly based at the University of the Western Cape's DNA Forensics Lab, but it started during one of her training periods with her forensic colleagues at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The researcher will on Friday publish an article in BioMed Central’s open access journal, Investigative Genetics, that says DNA barcodes can be used to identify even closely related species.
“Results from the study show that the labelling of game meat in South Africa is poor, with different species being substituted almost 80 percent of the time,” the university reported.
“Using mitochondrial COI DNA barcoding and (cytochrome b) sequencing, researchers analysed samples of game meat from supermarkets, wholesalers and other outlets and compared them to known samples and ‘library’ sequences.”
Of the 146 samples, more than 100 were found to have been mislabelled, the university said.
“All the samples labelled as beef samples were correct, but for the most badly labelled case, 92 percent of kudu was a different species.
“Only 24 percent of (biltong) identified as springbok and 30 percent as ostrich biltong (were) actually springbok or ostrich.
“The rest was horse, impala, hartebeest, wildebeest, waterbok, eland, gemsbok, duiker, giraffe, kangaroo, lamb, pork or beef. Worryingly, one sample labelled zebra was actually mountain zebra, a ‘red listed’ species threatened with extinction.”
D’Amato said: “The delivery of unidentifiable animal carcasses to market and the general lack of regulations increases the chances of species mislabelling and fraud. This has implications for species safety, but also has cultural and religious implications.
“This technique is also able to provide new information about the identity of animals and meant that we found several animals whose DNA had been misidentified in the scientific libraries.”
An expert who spoke to the Cape Argus on condition of anonymity, confirmed the research.
“The biggest-selling game meats are springbok and kudu, and most of the kudu will actually be black wildebeest.
“Even as someone in the industry, I couldn’t necessarily tell between most of them.
“The only one you could tell with is springbok, because it is ‘gamier’ and a darker meat. But the spices mask any minor differences in flavour.”
The expert suggested: “They should just sell it all as venison, which would be correct.”
With regards to horsemeat, he reported: “There are some unscrupulous dealers who may try to use horsemeat. They would typically use it as part of a mince recipe, not as biltong.
“It is also easier to sell such meats in sliced biltong, though, as it’s all mixed together. If I slipped in 10 percent of the wrong meat into a bag of sliced meat, no one would l know, I promise you.”
Asked for any advice he might have for consumers, he said: “Generally speaking, if you buy anything from burgers to droëwors, you can’t be guaranteed as to what’s in it.
“The biggest problem is that hunting is so unregulated.”
Some hunters shot whatever they could shoot.
“The animals get loaded on to the back of bakkies, and somehow that meat all eventually reaches the market.
“Beef, lamb and pork are far safer.”
But even beef has problems, as Stellenbosch University’s researchers reported this week.