There is a growing global consumer trend to select and buy organic products, even meat. Consumers prefer organic food because they perceive it as a healthier option than conventionally produced food. Its production is also seen as environmentally sustainable. The benefit for organic producers is that they enjoy premium prices for their products.

Organic products, specifically organic meat products, are gaining popularity in South Africa. Although the country’s organic meat market is growing, regulations to govern the marketing of these products have not yet been comprehensively described. Draft regulations are currently in place with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).

The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak earlier this year prevents South Africa from exporting meat, which has temporarily closed attractive overseas markets for organic meat. Despite this, having access to information about the certification process for organic meat could help producers prepare for local production and future exports. FarmBiz spoke to a few experts in the field while investigating resources to help producers.

What is organic meat?

Dr Sara Erasmus, a South African postdoctoral researcher on food fraud at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, says producers need to meet certain conditions before they can become organically certified. This includes, among other tings, a typical waiting period of two years until the soil is considered organic. According to the South African Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO), organic products should be farmed in a way that relies on ‘natural processes’. The use of toxic agro-chemicals is prohibited in organic production, and only ‘safe’ inputs may be used.

In animal production, animal welfare should be taken into consideration and environmental impact reduced. Organic farming should actively work towards the regeneration of natural resources. Below is a summary of a few regulations governing organic meat production, as outlined by DAFF.  

Handling

Organic meat production does not allow for landless animal husbandry practices or production units such as feedlots. The management of the animal’s environment, including access to grazing or pastures, freedom of movement and natural light must be considered. The minimum time required to produce slaughter-ready animals is specified for each domesticated species: for bovines it is twelve months, for small ruminants and pigs it is six months and for poultry it is 81 days.

Feed and inputs

Materials or products incorporating genetically modified organisms may not be used in organic meat production. Feed and substances used in feed must comply with organic standards. This includes fodder preservatives and silage processing aids. Certain feed must be home-grown. There are specific rations for herbivorous livestock, expressed as a percentage of the feed, that must come from home-grown feed or be cooperatively produced with other organic farms in the region. At least 60% of the dry matter in the daily rations of herbivores, pigs and poultry should consist of roughage, fresh or dried fodder or silage.

The following products may not be included in feed or given to the animal in any way or form:

  • Synthetic appetisers.
  • Preservatives.
  • Artificial colouring agents.
  • Urea.
  • Farm animal by-products, droppings, dung or other manure.
  • Feed subjected to solvent extraction or the addition of other chemical agents.
  • Pure amino acids.
  • Veterinary pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics or coccidiostats.
  • Growth regulators for animal production, stimulation or suppression of natural growth.
  • Hormones for heat induction and heat synchronisation.

Transport and slaughter

The guidelines for organic meat production require low stress and humane animal handling during transport and slaughter. Electric shock sticks or similar devices are not permitted. Animal stress, the quality and suitability of the mode of transport and the handling equipment, ambient temperature and humidity, hunger and thirst need to be considered. The journey to the abattoir may not exceed eight hours and no chemical tranquilisers, sedatives or stimulants may be given prior to or during transport.

Terminology and certification

Dr Erasmus clarifies some of the basic terminology used in the global standards for organic certification.

“Standards serve as guidelines; regulations are mandatory. The regulations set up by the European Union (EU) are generally followed internationally because the EU has one of the most established systems. EU regulations, known to be demanding, have become the ‘golden standard’ and they require organic meat to be certified by a recognised certification body. In the Netherlands, for example, organic certification is done by Skal,” Dr Erasmus explains.

“In South Africa, Ecocert manages organic certification for producers using the standards and regulations in place for certifying meat as organic. The company provides producer guidelines on how to put the approved systems in place to meet organic meet requirements. It also carries out the inspection and audits necessary before certification can be issued and the product marketed and sold as organic meat,” she adds.

In her article Organic Food Certification in South Africa: A Private Sector Mechanism in Need of State Regulation?, Odile Juliette Lim Tung, postdoctoral research fellow at the Faculty of Law at the North-West University writes: “The lack of legislation defining an ‘organic product’ in the country raises concerns with regard to claims associated with the ‘organic’ label.”

In her research, she lists the options South African producers have to become recognised as organic producers, including: a private certification mechanism with network and third-party certification; self-declared vendor claims, which may be associated with organic claims for local products; a state auditor mechanism prior to the use of the term ‘free-range’ on labels for meat products; and the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS) programme for organic agricultural production and processing.

Labelling protocols

Dr Erasmus says the topic of organic production claims overlaps with her field of expertise in food fraud. This is due to cases where the term organic is misused by producers who do not comply with organic practices.

“This happens because there is so much value associated with organic products and they are marketed at a higher price, also known as a premium price. Mislabelling is one of the biggest problems when it comes to product claims and this is what makes certification and the standardisation of regulations so important,” says Dr Erasmus.

“Most of the problems in meat label claims arise when statements are made about origin, for example protected geographical indication; production systems, such as organic, free-range or pasture-fed; and premium priced products, for example Kobe versus Wagyu beef, which often form part of food fraud.”

Ina Wilken-Jonker explores this issue in her Master of Consumer Science dissertation Consumers’ knowledge of selected claims associated with fresh lamb or mutton products. Her dissertation focuses on South African labelling regulations for production claims such as ‘grass-fed’, ‘grain-fed’, ‘natural lamb’, ‘free-range’, ‘hormone-free’, ‘no antibiotics’ or ‘cruelty-free’. These claims are permitted if they are true and verifiable and the protocol has been registered with DAFF by the South African Meat Industry Company (Samic), which has been assigned as the first point of clarification of these protocols.

Samic is also responsible for auditing these trademarks on behalf of DAFF. Once Samic is satisfied that a trademark complies with the protocol, it is sent to DAFF for registration. These claims, known as statements of quality indication, cover organic production.

Origin versus organic

Dr Erasmus says it is important to distinguish between organic meat and meat from a specific region. For example, in the case of Karoo lamb and Karoo Meat of Origin (KMOO) certification, the certification process is in line with the requirements for organic meat. However, it may not be marketed as organic meat, because it is not specifically certified as organic. On the other hand, meat certified as organic is not necessarily Karoo lamb. This is because a producer does not have to farm in the Karoo to produce organic meat. This is a very important difference to highlight because it can be misused in cases where organic lamb is marketed as Karoo lamb.

Prof Johann Kirsten, director of the Bureau for Economic Research at Stellenbosch University, has done extensive research on Karoo lamb. “Karoo lamb is by definition organic, because there is no feeding involved, there are no planted pastures grazed, and everything is natural and from the veld,” he says. “However, the certification for meat of origin and organic meat are two very different processes. There have been cases where producers try to promote organic Karoo lamb, but this is unnecessary.” – Ursula Human, FarmBiz

Enjoy two healthy lamb recipes by clicking here.

For more information, send an email to Dr Sara Erasmus at sara.erasmus@wur.nl or Prof Johann Kirsten at jkirsten@sun.ac.za.