By Ben Maclennan

Rabbit roasts and bunny burgers could be the food of the future for poor South Africans, according to a team of researchers from the University of the Free State.

In a paper released at the Agricultural Economics Association of South Africa conference, which began in Somerset West on Tuesday, they said the animals were a cheap and easy-to-raise form of low-cholesterol protein.

They also said blind taste tests they conducted had shown people preferred it to beef.

The researchers, led by dean of agricultural sciences Prof Herman van Schalkwyk, called for an "intensive information campaign" to create awareness of the advantages of rabbit.

They said this was particularly important in view of the fact that almost half of all South Africans lived below the poverty line.

In the taste test, 86 students and staff members at the university who were asked to rate four unidentified and lightly fried meats, put mutton at the top of the list, followed closely by chicken, rabbit, then beef.

"The results suggest that rabbit meat has as good a chance of being purchased as any other meat type if its ready availability in the market can be assured," the researchers said.

"However, the widespread acceptance and consumption of rabbit meat will still be hampered by lack of knowledge about its numerous production, income and nutritional advantages. This calls for an intensive campaign to disseminate this vital information."

They said that in other parts of the world, rabbits had a long history as a source of food, that the ancient Romans, known for their love of good living, regarded rabbit meat as the finest from any four-footed animal, and that it was today unusual to find a menu without rabbit meat in a French household.

"During the second and third centuries, rabbits were not only acclaimed for their pleasant flavour but there was a perception that they could cleanse the blood and skin, increase beauty and prolong youthfulness," they said.

While rabbit meat contained significantly less cholesterol than the other types of meat such as beef, pork, mutton and chicken, it had comparable protein and calorie contents, the researchers said.

Rabbits could be raised successfully on very cheap diet of vegetable and kitchen waste, lawn mowings, leaves of fruit trees, and weeds, which made rabbit production an attractive investment for poor rural households.

Rabbit production had also been found to be more cost-efficient than the production of fresh chicken meat and pork, and rabbits were such rapid breeders that they could theoretically produce more than 11 litters a year.

However the reality was that some societies did not recognise it as an agricultural livestock for human consumption, preferring rather to treat it as a pet.

This obviously had implications for the design of public and research policy to improve nutrition and tackle problems of food insecurity. - Sapa