Updated 10 March 2013

SA: donkey meat sold as beef

A Stellenbosch University study has found undeclared soya, donkey, goat and water buffalo meat in South African meat products.

There’s a fair share of incorrectly labelled meat products on the South African market, according to a new study by meat scientists from Stellenbosch University.

The study found that anything, from soya and donkey to goat and water buffalo, was 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 (FACTS) 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.

Meat substitution

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 use 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.

 - (Stellenbosch University press release)

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