Can you trust the labels on processed meats – mince, sausages, deli meats and burgers?
If a study conducted by Dr Donna Cawthorn, a food scientist with the University of Stellenbosch, is anything to go by, you can’t.
Cawthorn’s DNA testing of meat products from butcheries in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape revealed that of 139 samples, 95 – or 68 percent – contained meat species which were not declared on the label.
And in the case of samples from KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, it was a staggering 90 percent.
Sausages were most likely to contain meat species not declared on the label.
Pork and chicken were the most undeclared species in the survey – 37 percent of samples had undeclared pork in them, and 22 percent had undeclared chicken – these meats generally being cheaper than beef or mutton.
There was undeclared beef and mutton in 19 percent of the samples.
The results revealed widespread contraventions of the Consumer Protection Act – in terms of misleading consumers – and the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, which came into effect in March.
Cawthorn revealed her findings in a presentation entitled “Is there horse in my wors?” at a meeting of the SA Association for Food Science and Technology in Cape Town last week.
And that’s not the only unconventional butchery meat she found – four samples tested positive for goat, and another four for water buffalo.
Cawthorn has chosen not to identify the source of the samples, which is common in the case of academic studies, but leaves us unsatisfyingly in the dark about the dodgy butchers.
Consumer Watch commissioned independent DNA testing of a much smaller study: 13 samples of mince and sausages, bought from 10 butcheries in the Durban area, one of the country’s hot spots for adulterated processed meat.
Only four of the 13 were found not to have undeclared meat species in them, and many also contained undeclared soya or gluten, allergens which are required by law to be declared on food labels.
Only one product, a tray of Pick n Pay English-style beef sausages, was beyond reproach – accurately declaring both the correct meat species and allergens, and complying fully with food labelling regulations.
Only one butcher, whose product was found to contain an undeclared meat species, contested the result.
A pack of sausages I’d bought from a butchery in a predominantly Muslim area – lacking a label description or ingredients list, but said by the assistant to be beef – was found to contain pork as well. This is clearly a major problem, given that the Muslim community does not eat pork.
The butcher was horrified by the result, saying he’d made the sausages on site with beef bought from a reputable, halaal organisation-accredited supplier, with non-hog casings bought from another supplier.
The butcher contacted the National Independent Halaal Trust, and Moulana AW Wookay duly contacted Consumer Watch, stating that the butcher ought not to be named until further tests were conducted, as the DNA testing method used by the lab in question could pick up a single strand of DNA, hence the sample could have been contaminated in transit.
What is not being contested is the fact that the label on those unspecified sausages failed to comply with labelling legislation in a number of respects.
All the other companies accepted the results, most saying that failure to clean mincing machines between meat batches was to blame, and undertaking to deal with the problem.
Regarding a pack of “chicken sausages” sold at Queensmead Superspar, which was found to contain chicken along with beef and pork, Spar’s head office said the company had been told by the Department of Health that it need not list the ingredients on that made-on-site product, but that this information could be “kept on file behind the counter for the customer, should they request information on the product”.
Food labelling experts disagreed with this interpretation, pointing out that this applies to unpackaged, not packaged products.
Clearly, consumers have the right to expect that a pack of sausages described as chicken, in the absence of any other meat species declared on the label, does not contain any other meat species.
The label would certainly contravene the Consumer Protection Act’s section on product labelling, which states: “A person must not knowingly apply to any goods a trade description that is likely to mislead the consumer as to any matter implied or expressed in that description.”
And given that Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons and, similarly, the Muslim and Jewish communities do not eat pork, such mislabelling – intentional or accidental – has massive implications.
Here is a summary of the results of Consumer Watch’s mini survey:
- Pick n Pay Queensburgh, English style beef sausages, R57.99/kg.
Beef, lamb, wheat and gluten declared on label. Full ingredients list.
Test findings: Beef and lamb were the only meat species detected, as the label declared.
- Nagiah’s, Chatsworth Centre, chilli mutton sausages.
Label claim: “100% quality mutton. No beef or pork.” R64.98/kg. No ingredients list.
Test findings: Only sheep found in sample. Undeclared soya and gluten.
Test findings: Only sheep found. Undeclared gluten.
Response: Owner Guy Mound was delighted with the result. “We have taken your advice regarding correct labelling very seriously. The gluten is in the supplied spice pack and we will be introducing new labels with immediate effect.”
Response: Spar head office: “This is a single commodity item and would therefore not require an ingredient list. We are of the opinion it should be clear that it is beef mince, and should be labelled as such. We shall take this up with the store.”
- Bluff Meat Supply, Value Centre, Springfield Park, mutton sausage, R59.98/kg. Ingredients list, declaring mutton.
Test findings: Mutton detected, along with beef, pork and chicken, plus undeclared soya.
Response: Owner Mark Bielovich expressed surprise, saying only mutton was used in this product, with sheep casings. He conceded that cross-contamination was possible as the machines were only washed at the end of each shift.
“We are doing our very best to abide by the new labelling regulations. I am sure your findings are as a result of contamination from previous batches of sausages produced. This is an oversight.
“I am going to instruct all our outlets to start the day’s production with mutton mince and then mutton sausages. Hopefully this will eliminate species cross-contamination.”
- Shoprite Overport, mutton bangers, R39.99/kg. Ingredients list declares mutton and soy.
Test findings: Mutton detected along with undeclared beef and undeclared gluten.
Response: “This is a clear contravention of our company policies as well as labelling requirements.
“We suspect that traces of residue of the previous species (beef), carried over in the process of mincing and sausage making, which can happen if the machine was not cleaned out thoroughly.
“The spices are being tested as they do not disclose the gluten found and the traces could be due to other uses within the spice factory, and therefore the labelling may require amendment accordingly.
“Pending the outcome of an internal investigation into traces of beef within the mutton sausages, relevant disciplinary action or necessary retraining processes will be followed with the respective staff member(s).”
Test findings: Mutton detected, along with undeclared beef, pork and chicken, plus undeclared allergens soy and gluten.
Response: Pedro Caldeira, the group’s regional butcher director, did an audit on the branch in question and discovered that they were using hog casings for the mutton sausages.
“Also, they have not been cleaning the mincer and spice tumbler after every batch, and separate table surfaces have not been used for specific meat species. We will rectify these practices immediately, and our new, compliant labels will be introduced within two weeks.”
- Superspar Queensmead, chicken sausages, R63.99/kg. No ingredients list.
Test findings: Chicken detected, along with undeclared beef and pork, as well as undeclared allergens soya and gluten.
Response: A Spar head office spokesman said such products, produced on site, do not require an ingredients list. Food labelling experts disagree with this interpretation.
The Spar spokesman told Consumer Watch: “A customer could unintentionally be misled by this label, but there are so many products made in store that it isn’t practical and very costly to put full ingredient listings on every product.
“Those customers who have ethical or religious objections can ask for the ingredient statements from the service manager.”
- Ellis Park Butchery, Glenashley, “mutton flavour sausage”, R49.99/kg. Ingredients list declaring wheat and gluten as allergens. Sticker featuring the image of a sheep and the word “Lamb”.
Test findings: Mutton detected, along with beef and pork, and undeclared soya.
Response: Owners Michael and Rohan Moodie said they named the product “mutton flavour sausage” because it is not a pure mutton sausage, but rather made from beef and mutton with mutton-flavoured spice.
No pork was added, they said, but conceded that the product could contain traces as pork was used in the manufacture of other sausages on site.
“We do use the same mincing and filling and mixing machine for all our products, so from time to time you could find a trace of pork in our other products.
“We are not a halaal or kosher shop and have never said that we are.”
They said they were happy to alter their labels to inform their customers of all meat species in products.
As for the soya content, they said, it was not added to the sausages, but there could have been traces present from other products.
- Cambridge Food, Umgeni Road, Three samples: mutton banger tray (R16.95/kg); mince plain tray (R51.95/kg) and chicken sausage tray (R16.95/kg).
Test Findings: The mutton bangers declared poultry in the ingredients list, but not pork, which was detected in the tests; the chicken sausages contained undeclared beef and pork; and the unspecified “plain mince” turned out to be beef and pork.
Response: Divisional chief executive of Cambridge Food, Kevin Vyvyan-Day, said the company had initiated an immediate investigation into the packaging and labelling of meat at the Umgeni butchery.
“As a result we identified, and have taken action to remedy, the factors that contributed to the labelling issues that you have raised.
“For example, in the case of the mutton banger tray the ingredients list correctly identifies that chicken was used in the bangers, but the butcher inadvertently omitted from the ingredients list the pork casing into which the ingredients are stuffed.
“We also discovered data entry errors in the labelling machine that prints product labels for the butchery.
“This resulted in duplication of certain labels and missing or incomplete labelling information.
“We apologise unreservedly for any inconvenience that may have been caused to our customers.