The meat debacle 02/27/13
There’s a fair share of fraudulent meat products on the South African market, according to a new study by meat scientists from Stellenbosch University.
Anything from donkey, soya and water buffalo have been found in processed meat products such as sausage, burger patties and deli meats sold in South Africa, according to a study by Stellenbosch University researchers. These were not specifically identified on the product labels.
The study found that anything from soya, donkey, goat and water buffalo were to be found in up to 68% 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 findings follow in the wake of various international food produce scandals that have made headlines.
The study was published in the international Food Control journal, and was done by Dr Donna-Maree Cawthorn and Prof. Louw Hoffman of the Stellenbosch University Department of Animal Sciences, in conjunction with Harris Steinman of the Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (F.A.C.T.S) in Milnerton.
“Our study confirms that the mislabelling of processed meats is commonplace in South Africa and not only violates food labelling regulations, but also poses economic, religious, ethical and health impacts,” says Prof. Louw Hoffman of the Department of Animal Sciences.
The products tested were collected from retail outlets and butcheries.
Of the 139 samples tested, 95 (68%) contained species which were not declared on the product labelling. The scapegoats in general were sausages, burger patties and deli meats.
Soya and gluten were found in 28% 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%) and chicken (23%) 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,” says Prof. 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 (AMSA) with its International Lectureship Award.
The researchers used various DNA-based molecular techniques to evaluate the extent of meat product mislabelling. The enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) was used to detect undeclared plant proteins such as soya and gluten in the samples.
The study forms part of a larger research project in which Dr Cawthorn and Prof. Hoffman uses DNA-based species authentication to identify commercial fish species and game species sold in local restaurants. Already, they have found that a large percentage of the fish and game meat sold is in fact identified incorrectly. Research into why this occurs is now under way.
“Our findings raise significant concern on the functioning of the meat supply chain in South Africa,” says Prof. 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.”
“Clearly, our consumers cannot generally accepted that the meat products they buy are correctly labelled,” says Dr. Cawthorn, who believes that the entire local meat industry needs to take more responsibility in complying with relevant regulations. “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,” he adds.
While the meat debacle is not an issue for vegetarians – what is concerning is the issue of food labelling. How many other products on the shelves are not what they appear to be?