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Scandalous

Just as it appeared that the meat contamination scandal in the UK had come, if not to a resolution, then to a point where there were no new revelations of unlabelled horsemeat in ready meals, fast food, and other processed meat, the Guardian has released a report on the employment practices of one of the Dutch firms implicated in food adulteration.

Not only does the investigation reveal the appalling conditions in which a group of poorly-paid Polish immigrants were forced to work, but it demonstrates the extent to which the Willy Stelten factory mixed horsemeat as well as old and rotting meat into meat sold as beef. The owner of the business – the titular Willy Stelten – was arrested earlier this week for allegedly selling 300 tonnes of horsemeat as beef.

As the Guardian’s handy timeline of the scandal demonstrates, for all of the recent lull in new developments, it’s been in the news for nearly half a year. In contrast, South Africa’s contaminated meat scandal was reported widely in April but has since then largely disappeared from the headlines.

I think that it’s worth comparing the two scandals. These are my observations about the similarities and differences between them. If you’ve any to add, list them in the comments, below, and I’ll incorporate them into the post.

A butcher in Edinburgh.

A butcher in Edinburgh.

The most striking difference between the British and South African scandals was the ways in which they originated. In January, the Irish Food Standards Authority reported that it had found unlabelled horsemeat in burger patties sold by Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl. It implicated ABP Silvercrest, one of Europe’s biggest meat processors, in selling unlabelled horsemeat and pork to a range of factories and supermarkets, including, even, upmarket, ethical Waitrose.

As the UK Food Standards Authority began its investigation, an increasing number of food producers, supermarkets, and fast food chains have been accused of passing off horse- and other meats in food products labelled, usually, as beef. In fact, it now seems to be easier to identify those retailers not linked to the scandal, than those who are.

The South African food scandal was the product of a study carried out by meat scientists at Stellenbosch University. In February, they announced that they had found traces of horse, donkey, goat, and water buffalo meat in a range of products in supermarkets and butchers around the country. Because the researchers were unwilling to make their list of retailers public, City Press submitted an FOI request, and, in April, named all of South Africa’s major supermarkets, Food Lovers’ Market, and smaller, independent shops as guilty of mislabelling meat products.

In many ways, the two scandals are very similar. They occurred because of a failure of regulation; the contamination of meat was widespread (it wasn’t limited to one or two supermarkets, but occurred across the food industry); and there is evidence to suggest that some illegal meat entered both food chains because of criminal activity.

Also both scandals hit poorest customers the hardest: those people who buy the budget burgers and processed meat sold at massive, bargain supermarkets. Possibly because poverty is so obvious in South Africa, local commentators managed – mercifully – to avoid making silly, snotty arguments about having no sympathy for people who had been duped into buying horsemeat.

Indeed, it’s striking how frequently the South African scandal has been described as a crisis of mis-labelling. Retailers argued that the traces of donkey, horse, and other meats in products were very, very small, and probably the result of cross-contamination.  The Department of Trade and Industry ordered the National Consumer Commission – an agency of the Department – to investigate the issue.

South Africa has very strict laws which regulate the length of the food chain – from the slaughter of animals to the labelling of meat products in shops. In fact, the Consumer Protection Act is one of the strictest of its kind in the world. The problem lies in enforcing these rules. The three departments responsible for patrolling food safety – health, agriculture, and trade and industry – have, collectively, failed to do so adequately. Herman Blignaut, an attorney with copyright experts Spoor & Fisher, said to City Press:

The respective departments probably don’t have the manpower to sustain a firm hold on compliance of the requirements, so the policing is not what it should be.

Another factor that can make policing more difficult is the fact that slow, expensive and expert analysis is necessary to establish whether the meat claimed to be in the product actually is, and whether it could be contaminated by other meats.

But this focus on food labelling, while important, obscures some other, more fundamental questions. Most of the cases of contamination identified by the Stellenbosch report related to unlabelled chicken, mutton, and pork, and these can be dealt with through the enforcement of labelling regulations. But the report does not explain how and why water buffalo, donkey, and horsemeat entered the food chain.

Answering questions posed by the opposition Democratic Alliance in Parliament, Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson admitted that South Africa imported horse and water buffalo, as well as other meats, from Brazil and India:

According to the department, South Africa’s Brazilian meat imports included 61 tons of horse meat in 2011, 150 tons in 2012 and 49.8 tons this year. More than 460 tons of poultry and 45.5 tons of beef were imported from Brazil from 2011 to 2012.

South Africa imported 1 175 tons of water buffalo from India in 2011 until imports were suspended in May, 2011.

The reason why imports were suspended from both countries was because of the ‘significant risk’ their products posed to South Africans. Unfortunately, the Minister ‘declined to disclose the names of importers or give a reason why the department considered meat imports from these countries to be potentially harmful.’

In addition to this, a confidential police report from 2012 alleges that crime syndicates illegally import meat – including water buffalo meat from Asia. Jacques Pouw explains:

The crime intelligence report says the syndicates are also involved in money laundering, bribery and, in some cases, narcotics and trafficking.

The report was compiled after South Africa’s red meat industry bodies apparently warned authorities that water buffalo meat was being smuggled into the country.

The report, called ‘Criminal syndicates and the meat market’, reveals that an Interpol investigation has found South Africans are members of syndicates that smuggle meat from Asia, South America and our neighbouring states into the country.

It is not clear if police are currently investigating these syndicates. So the South African tainted meat scandal has not been resolved. Crucial questions have yet to be answered: what are the authorities doing to prevent the illegal import of meat? And why were legal meat imports from Brazil and India halted?

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. RobS #

    This is great – I especially liked the subtle inter-textual visual reference to your piece on Scotland! Some further random thoughts – has there been any questions in SA about food safety, on the lines of the (overblown) concerns about ‘bute,’ in the UK? Also, in the UK, the cultural issue of horsemeat as unpalatable has been to the fore – and yet, there has been little acknowledgement of the extent of its production. Your piece suggests that the story in SA is one of contamination by ‘foreign’ imports – is this definitely the case?

    May 30, 2013
    • Thanks! So, to respond systematically:

      1. Although the authors of the Stellenbosch report do raise the issue of food safety, interestingly, the media chose not to focus on that. If there is more extensive reporting on SA’s decision not to import meat from India/Brazil on health grounds – and on the non-investigation into meat smuggling – then, I think, there’ll be more interest in the health implications of meat contamination.

      2. So, in SA there were two kinds of contamination: of unlabelled chicken/pork/lamb in beef/processed meat products; and unlabelled foreign imports in meat products. The former contamination seems to have been more prevalent, which is why this scandal has been focussed around the issue of mislabelling, and why, I think, there’s been relatively little concern about food safety. Because it appeared – initially – that contamination from foreign imports was comparatively rare, there wasn’t the kind of discussion about eating horse and other strange animals. (I don’t think, though, that this indicates any wider, cultural acceptance of eating horse/donkey/water buffalo.) As investigations into SA’s (il)legal imports of meat from Brazil/India continue, I’d be curious to see if those kinds of debates begin to emerge.

      May 30, 2013

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