Cape Town -
Some retail giants, who have been named in a study as those selling incorrectly labelled meat products, have hit back at the findings.
Retailers including Shoprite and Pick n Pay were named and shamed in Sunday newspapers on Sunday after Media24 succeeded in an application using the Promotion of Access to Information Act to gain access to the study results by the University of Stellenbosch.
The study found that nearly 60 percent of tested meat products contained traces of unlabelled DNA, including donkey, water buffalo and pork.
It found that pork, beef, mutton and chicken were the most common ingredients not declared on labels.
Tamra Veley, spokesperson for Pick n Pay, said the results of the study had been “quite overblown” by the media.
She said the study only served to identify the presence of trace amounts of DNA in a product and was not enough to imply meat substitution.
Pick n Pay insisted there had been no cross-contamination of its halaal and kosher products.
“Halaal and kosher products are processed in separate facilities which have been approved by the Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Muslim Judicial Council,” said Veley.
According to the study, of 32 Shoprite and Checkers products tested, 20 were labelled incorrectly.
According to Ronel Burger, head of the Food Safety Initiative of the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, “it is not uncommon for other species of animal DNA to be found in minute quantities in meat products”.
To differentiate between minute levels of DNA transfer and cases of genuine meat substitution, food safety authorities around the world applied a one-percent threshold to determine substitution. Pick n Pay commissioned independent DNA laboratories to test more than 700 meat samples on this basis, none of which came back over the threshold.
In most cases, the amounts of DNA found in some of the products listed in the Stellenbosch study were so small they could be picked up even if cattle, for example, had been moved through the same pasture as sheep.
Shoprite Group chief executive Whitey Basson said some of the findings did not make sense.
“No butcher in his right mind would intentionally add a small percentage of lamb, which costs more per kilogram, to a pure beef sausage,” said Basson.
Fruit and Veg City said on Sunday that it had implemented random DNA testing on all meat and meat-related products since March this year.
“In the wake of the recent release of a study by the university… Fruit and Veg City Group has implemented proactive measures to ensure that all meat sold in its butcheries is legally procured from approved abattoirs and that... unlabelled species are not present in any of the meat products,” said Nigel Meintjies, legal director of the retailer.
Woolworths, the only retailer to escape the worst of the study, with only microscopic traces of chicken found in its polony, responded to the study with a statement ensuring consumers that it would “remain vigilant”.
However, according to Imraahn Ismail-Mukaddam of Consumer Fair, South Africa had been a “convenient dumping ground” for kangaroo, water buffalo and pork hearts long before the Stellenbosch study was conducted.
“It is indeed remarkable that such big retailers are involved but if you look back to 2011, you will remember that Orion Cold Storage was also taken to court for mislabelling and contaminating meat,” said Ismail-Mukaddam.
Orion Cold Storage, a frozen foods distributor in Cape Town, was alleged to have falsely labelled certain meat products, including kangaroo and pork as halaal, according to Ismail-Mukaddam.
“No follow-up has been done since the interdict was filed. So for me, the meat scandal is nothing new - the warning signs have been there since the Orion scandal,” he said.
Ismail-Mukaddam added that Consumer Fair fully blamed the Muslim Judicial Council for much of the fact that Muslims were eating non-halaal meat.
“If the halaal-certifying authorities had been more competent, this would have been uncovered and prevented long ago.”
The Muslim Judicial Council, however, distanced itself from the mislabelling scandal, saying the contamination did not affect halaal meat.
“Halaal meat goes through a different channel of production from the point of slaughter to outlet. We do, however, feel that other consumers have been heavily violated,” said the council’s Nabeweya Malick.
South African Jewish Board of Deputies chairperson Mary Kluk said kosher meat was also not affected by the results of the study.
Meanwhile, the scientist behind the study, Professor Louw Hoffman, said his intention was never to name and shame anyone.
“The main objective was to evaluate the compliance and adherence of the meat industry to labelling acts”.
Hoffman said although traces of unlabelled pork had been found in some of the meat, he could not confirm whether it was halaal or kosher.
“We never looked at whether it would affect any religious group because that was never the point of the study in the first place,” he said.
Trade and Industry department spokesperson Sidwell Medupe said an investigation into meat labelling was under way.
“The investigation is looking into the relevant stakeholders who are involved according to the Consumer Protection Act. The results of the investigation will be made public in about three months.”
The guilty parties are liable to fines worth R1-million or imprisonment for up to 10 years. - Cape Argus