Meat Labelling – What You Need To Know
This article is one I’ve been meaning to do for ages. I’ve got a Kilimanjaro list of articles I want to write for you and so much information to share, it’s going to take some time and as we get more settled on this side with our new process and service and I start handing over some of the day to day admin that I’m grappling with for now, I’ll being able to get more active in the Jozi Real Food Revolution with our debate, dialogue and arming us to be an informed, educated and super conscious food buying community.
On Sunday evening we were out in Melrose and stopped at a place for a meal. It was there that I was reminded that this article must perhaps be written more urgently. I’m not going to mention the restaurant and I don’t want to demonize the manager, it just highlighted for me that there is such confusion around meat labeling and sustainable farming terms that we should clear up. Even the manager of this particular restaurant had no idea that he was in fact mislabeling and misrepresenting his menu. We had a great chat about it, he was interested in the information and nobody was deliberately trying to hoodwink the unsuspecting public, the fact was that the manager himself wasn’t aware of the regulations surrounding meat labeling or of the difference in terms.
We need to query labels and descriptions on menus.
So, there we were. Studying menus capriciously and then interrogating menus and managers is something I’m quite experienced in much to my husband’s (peace lover) war weary fatigue. Having a wife prone to activism and revolutions can be very daunting if you’re not into conflict as you can imagine.
Anyhow in this instance, I was meeting up with my husband and daughter in Melrose, I was leaving an appointment and they were returning from a Winter clothing shopping exercise which had her back with a French beret, some flimsy skirts, extravagant blouses and boots –but let me not digress! Fathers and daughters…So I got to the restaurant before then and managed to have my whole interrogation debarkle almost complete by the time they arrived. We were wrapping up our chat as my husband walked in and that weary ‘oh no why is she in a meeting with the manager before she’s even ordered’ look passed over this face.
So the issue was that on the menu, there was an option for ‘organic beef’, which I was very amazed to see because as far as I understand it, you can’t get organic beef in South Africa for a whole host of reasons.
Firstly, according to the consumer protection act, you can’t label something as ‘organic’ quite rightly unless it is certified. In theory and it gets complicated as I learnt today after spending 5 hours on this article when I thought it would take half an hour!
If something is called ‘organic’ on our site, it means it has been certified as such by a certification agency. If it is a farm that is farming organically but not certified, I call it ‘naturally grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizers’ both to respect the labeling act as well as to be fair towards those farms that have paid the fees and gone through the process of being audited to organic standards. If a farm hasn’t been audited to any particular standards to indeed prove a claim that it farms organically then how would you know down an anonymous supermarket aisle or a restaurant where the farm is so well hidden from you, whether the claim is actually meaningful?
The organic standards that have been written for organic beef are mostly for overseas conditions that don’t suit South Africa. We have a very unique climate with dry winters and dry veldt, so the standards written for European farms don’t quite fit us. That’s one of the reasons, its difficult to find certified organic beef, if not impossible, in South African stores.
Then there’s the fact that in order to be certified – farmers need access to certified organic grain input for the feed which is difficult to find here and expensive where they can.
Add a very small organic consumer base and a confused consumer and it generally is just an uphill battle for organic farmers. They don’t have the market to justify paying the fees.
Personally, I much prefer a 100% grass fed or 100% veldt reared and pastured farm for meat and believe that this is the healthiest form of animal protein to eat and the most ethically raised and produced.
I don’t think that grain in a cattle’s diet is a good thing, nor does Keith Harvey who farms Kalahari 100% Grass Fed Beef and ‘organic beef’ doesn’t necessarily mean 100% free range, grass fed or veldt reared at all. An organic farm can still supplement with grain as long as it’s certified organic and certification doesn’t necessarily include standards for the humane treatment of animals either.
So there I was utterly surprised to see ‘organic beef’ on the menu in a South African restaurant. I asked the waitress to please ask the manager where they are getting their ‘organic beef’ from, suspecting that either they had mislabeled it as organic when it’s actually just free range or grass fed, or that they had brought it in from Namibia.
Imagine my surprise when she came back and said ‘the manager says we get our organic beef from various farms’. Now, my alarm bell was ringing rather loudly. I’m not aware of one certified organic beef farm in South Africa that has organic beef readily available to the public , let alone several.
I asked her to please send the manager over, now utterly convinced that he and I should chat! So I voiced my concern and asked him where he was sourcing the organic beef from He gave me the name of 2 suppliers they use for the ‘organic beef’. The one I recognized as a farm I know, definitely not certified organic beef at all, it’s predominantly grass fed and free-range, it’s not clear how much grain is supplemented on this farm but certainly not organic. The second supplier’s name he gave me as a source of their ‘organic’ beef is one of the largest feedlot operations in South Africa. They in fact boast of growing their own grain and maize and it is all GM. It’s certainly not organic.
I chatted to the manager about the labeling laws and asked him to please change the menus as he isn’t allowed to use the term ‘organic’ to describe the beef on their menu. He was surprised and didn’t’ know anything about the fact that free-range, grass-fed and organic are not synonymous terms.
It’s frightening out there, the only way we can empower ourselves as consumers is through education, so here is a quick buying guide on where we’re at in this country with sustainable terms.
I must admit that I’m pretty much close to tears right now – that or bashing my head against a solid wall. That’s because I have for the best part of today been trying to understand the legislative environment behind our labeling and food standard laws in this country. This article has taken up all day on the phone, chasing one lead to another, trying to piece it all together and ending up lost in bureaucracy.
In amongst it, I’ve had some funky un-predicatable problems like having a schitzophrenic hobo wander on and off the property causing all sorts of hassle until we had to call the police to remove him which was a little distracting!
It is clear that this article is going to take a couple of weeks to sort out because it’s messy out there.
I still have more questions that haven’t been answered and that I am chasing but for now I can guarantee after everything that I’ve learnt today – that you need to become your own expert and link to farms in your own way and ask for transparency in information because there isn’t a big brother out there looking after your interests when it comes to accurate food labels.
I am clear after today’s run around between the Department of Health, The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the SABS and the SA government that when it comes to labels – you need to become an expert – what is and isn’t acceptable is wound up in a ball of what seems like tangled wool.
The legislation that governs labeling and advertising laws in this country was drafted by the Department of Health and is called the R146 Labeling and Advertising Regulations. Therein is a sentence that refers to using labels like ‘free range’, ‘organic’, ‘grass fed’, ‘pastured’ and a host of others. The labeling law here stipulates that you cannot use these terms unless they conform to certain protocols, which are outlined by other policy documents at other bodies. So for instance – the regulations for ‘free range’ as it relates to eggs are outlined by the government’s Agricultural Products Standards Act, where you can find a very loose definition.
When it comes to organic, government legislation about what it means is from what I understand still in draft and not yet approved.
I am still trying to find standard and protocols for grass-fed between all of these departments and coming up frustrated.
So, we need to police this ourselves. That’s the bottom line. This is what the differences mean vaguely because nobody is enforcing them. I’m keeping this about beef for now:
Organic – means that the cattle have been certified according to an organic certification body as having been farmed to relevant organic standards for beef production. The protocols include what the animals are eating which needs to predominantly be certified organic feed, prohibits the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, medicines and growth promoters. Organic beef does not necessarily mean grass fed at all. Organic beef can still be fed grain and maize so long as they are certified organic inputs. There are sometimes standards for the humane treatment of animals included in the certification but this will vary between certification agencies. For more information on this – contact a body like Afrisco or Eco-Cert and ask to see their standards. In terms of worldwide normality, it is disingenuous to label something ‘organic’ unless it has a relevant certification without which the term is meaningless unless the producer can stipulate what organic means in his labeling without being audited.
Free-Range – I have only been able to find a definition for free-range thus far that is documented with government through the Agricultural Productions Standards Act – for chickens and eggs.
According to the labeling legislation – free-range used on chicken and eggs must mean the following:
“Eggs that are produced by poultry which are not caged and have daily access to an outdoor range accessible through openings in the side of a barn.” “..must have continuous day time access to open air runs for at least 6 hours per day provided that:
– open air runs be mainly covered with vegetation where poultry is able to scratch and dust bath, and
– – open air runs be big enough to allow ample running space”
Note – this is it. There is no standard for the feed or the routine administration of antibiotics or growth promoters with free-range, it is only a reflection of the space they are allowed to live in.
Free-range and organic are not the same. Most organic standards for livestock are inclusive of free range practices and don’t favor caging animals but not all of them. This will vary from agency to agency but for the most part organic does include free-range practices but free-range does not mean organic practice at all.
Grass-Fed – The labeling legislation, does not allow for this term to be used as with the above unless it is attached to protocols outlined in the Agricultural Produce Standards Act that I have yet to find. Grass-fed can mean that the animals were on grass for most of their lives but could still be put into a feedlot and fattened on grain for the last weeks or months of its life. Without proper legislation governing this, you need to check with the farmer what he means by ‘grass-fed’. Does he still fatten on grain? Does he mean only grass for all of the animal’s life? Does he grow grass with pesticides or artificial fertilizers and is this what the cattle graze on? What exactly does he mean by ‘grass fed’. What farmers can do like Keith from Kalahari 100% Grass Fed Beef in the absence of adequate legislation is design their own protocols like they have done, register these with SAMIC (South African Meat Industry Company) and then they have to be audited by a 3rd party inspector to use the logo. So Kalahari beef has to have protocols to outline what their trademark means and then the farm needs to be audited to those protocols. In the case of Kalahari 100% Grass Fee Beef, Keith’s protocols are for a 100% veldt reared animal. Just ask questions about grass-fed in the absence of tight legislation to find out what the farmer actually means by this term.
Pastured – Same deal – without legislation – you have to ask the farmer or retailer to define what this means and how it can be verified.
After going through this entire exercise today, I’m as convinced than ever that we have to only deal with farms as we do that we know, that clearly communicate their farming philosophy and farming methods and that are fully transparent and run open farms that we can visit and chat to. It’s the only way.
The days of us leaving it up to labels to give us information and to sell and deceive are over, the only transparency is the quality of your own education and questions and your relationship to the retailer if there is one. Labels don’t protect you, it doesn’t matter what legislation is written.
We know this, buying from outlets and markets that give you access to and information to local farmers is your best way forward.
As I get more feedback on all the relevant legislation for labeling, I’ll pass it on but my message is – never mind the label – pick up the phone and ask questions in the absence of information on the farm that produced your food and be reminded that the Jozi Real Food Revolution is about buying Real Food From Real Farms that you can trace.
- The Department of Health – www.doh.gov.za/docs/foodcontrol/advertising/2012/reg0146.pdf
- Agricultural Product Standards Act – South Africa Government Online www.info.gov.za/view/DownloadFileAction?id=15759
- The Directorate of Food Control – 012 395 8800
- www.farmerangus.co.za – great website and blog for information about grass fed beef