Report back from Departments of Health, Trade and Industry, and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on meat inspection services and labelling in South Africa

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

20 June 2013
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC) & Dr BM Goqwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Departments of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), Health (DoH) and Trade and Industry (DTI) briefed a joint meeting of the Portfolio Committees on Agriculture, Health, and Trade and Industry, on meat inspection services and labelling in South Africa.  DAFF coordinated the briefings, which included input from the National Consumer Commission (NCC). The most important Committee concerns emerging from the meeting were that the current capacity for carrying out meat inspection services was a serious risk to food safety and that the coordinated structure was not moving fast enough to restore public confidence.

On 30 May 2013, at a one-day seminar led by DAFF, 118 delegates from various sectors had proposed how challenges in the food value chain – not only for meat -- should be resolved. The coordinated structures would harmonise information and strengthen what was being done. Once the proposal had been approved by Cabinet, a more detailed action plan -- with resources and time frames -- would be submitted to the Committee. The earliest possible date for Cabinet approval would be in August.  DAFF was currently leading the Task Team.

The National Consumer Commission investigation would be completed by the first week of July 2013, and a comprehensive report of the findings and recommendations would then be compiled. It could not comment on its observations at this stage.

Members asked which department was the main driver of the process; which department was responsible for monitoring border control and the abattoirs; why imports from Brazil and India had been stopped; if inspection services monitored all imports; and if the departments could guarantee that the food was fresh, pure and not contaminated when it reached the shelves for consumers.  They also asked if SARS identified the countries from which South Africa imported meat and how SARS fitted into the structure; how many products that were refused entry in another country were imported into SA; and for a list of South Africa’s import standards compared to international standards.

Members felt that the general problem was that people of South Africa lacked attention to rules and regulations, and lacked the capacity to enforce them. They asked what had been done to at least limit the damage since the university reports had hit the headlines; if the three departments had waited until the Universities of Stellenbosch and Western Cape had come up with the report on meat mislabelling before they started investigating meat labelling; if there was capacity to deal with inspections and meat labelling; and for information about the SALGA summit held on 20 June 2013.
The issue of the 262 Environmental Health Practitioners who were sitting at home due to the misdirection of funding at municipalities would be included in the submission to National Treasury. Members agreed that naming, shaming and convictions were necessary to turn the situation around.

By the first week in August, the Committees expected to receive a plan with a time frame on how inspection services on meat labelling and capacity would be taken forward by the coordinated structure.
 

Meeting report

Mr Mortimer Mannya, Acting Director-General; DAFF, said that the meeting was a follow up to the joint committee meeting held on 26 March 2013. The departments recognised the inadequacy in the coordination of food control systems and the key message was that it wanted to move toward harmonisation and integration to restore public confidence in food safety matters. The gaps had been identified and the three departments had developed an action plan on how collaboration on food control would proceed.

On 30 May 2013, at a one-day seminar to identify the challenges in the country’s food value chain, 118 delegates from various sectors were divided into five focus groups, and at the end of the seminar were able to proposed how the challenges should be addressed.  The highlights from the seminar were that the value chains in the agrifood sector in South Africa and her international trading partners had become increasingly complex, that South Africa’s multiple departmental food control legislation was fragmented, and that structures were ineffective in responding strategically to the current food control operational challenges.

The challenges identified were:
• The need for a high-level decision, to ensure the strengthening of food safety controls;
• Fragmentation of food control authorities;
• Limited capacity for appropriate scientific inputs in decision-making processes;
• Lack of an integrated strategy and capacity at food laboratories;
• Lack of capacity to conduct animal species quantitative analysis;
• The need for the approval of an official traceability and recall policy and system;
• Fragmentation and poor coordination of intra- departmental structures;
• Fragmented food inspections compromising enforcement and compliance;
• Inadequate information, education and communication to consumers on food safety and food control matters;
• The need to broaden access and participation between the public and private sector on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues;
• The need to improve border controls;
• Insufficient specialized legal expertise on food safety and food control matters.

Once the strategies and interventions (see attached document) to address the challenges had been approved by government, a more detailed action plan, with resources and time frames, would be submitted to government before implementation. The benefit of the joint approach would ensure uniform and consistent application of protection measures, the ability to act decisively and protect consumers, a central source of information in the government gazette, and more effective use of resources and expertise.

Dr Boitshoko Ntshabele, Director: Food Safety and Quality Assurance, DAFF, and head of the Task Team, added that the proposal was a framework to resolve long-term issues on food control systems across all levels, and for consumer safety with regards to all food, not only for meat.

Ms Prudence Moilwa, Head: Enforcement and Investigations, National Consumer Commission, said that additional information had been added to the investigation and that she could not comment on the observations at this stage.  By the first week of July 2013, the investigation would be complete and a comprehensive report on the findings and recommendations would then be compiled,

Discussion
The Chairperson asked where each department had started and ended in the cycle of food safety so that everyone was clear on the role they played.

Ms A Steyn (DA) asked which department was the main driver of the process. The Committee was very frustrated, as it could not follow up or know where to target. Everyone was responsible, yet no-one was responsible.

Dr Anban Pillay, DDG, Department of Health (DoH), said that a number of pieces of legislation were attached to the framework. The DoH was responsible for the foodstuffs, cosmetics and disinfectants within the Foodstuff Acts and regulations. The challenge was that each department operated in a silo. The framework presented in the proposal would coordinate which department was responsible for a particularly issue which might have fallen through the cracks. The DoH would be responsible for  the monitoring and inspection of retail and local government facilities. Transgressions were provided for in the Foodstuffs Act.  The DoH could act against non-compliance in a court of law and inspectors had the mandate to take action against transgressors. These powers had been delegated to the municipalities as well.

Ms M Pilusa-Mosoane (ANC) asked which department was responsible for monitoring border control and the abattoirs.

Dr Tembile Songabe, Director: Veterinary Public Health, DAFF, replied that all controls relating to live animals on farms lay within the ambit of DAFF.  Therefore, all control of abattoirs was under the ambit of DAFF. When the meat left the abattoir, whether for sale or processing, those facilities were within the ambit of the DoH.  DAFF performed risk analysis and authorised imports.   Before shipping to South Africa, the veterinary authorities of the country of origin certified that requirements had been met. On arrival, DAFF inspected products for safety and compliance with the import permit, and once DAFF had cleared the imports, they entered the domestic market and were the responsibility of the DoH. The Meat Exporters could attest to him saying that at port of entry, DAFF inspectors rejected consignments if they posed a risk to South African consumers. Containers which were not safe were destroyed or returned to the country of origin. There were some difficult cases which ended up in court.

Mr S Abram (ANC) asked who was performing the inspection of the 400 abattoirs.

Dr Mphane Molefe, Chairperson: Independent Meat Inspection Work Group, DAFF replied that there were two types of animal inspectors: private service providers hired by abattoirs to offer meat inspection;  and provincial Veterinary Public Health Officials to monitor abattoirs, as well as the meat inspection offered by the private service providers at those particular abattoirs. There was not adequate capacity for monitoring at provincial level.

Ms Steyn said that while she took note that the presentation was merely a framework to address the challenges, she was disappointed with the lack of immediate response to the public.  She was also disappointed that government did not play its role in ensuring that South Africa had safe food, and that universities had to do the research and come up with the information.  When the scandal had erupted in Europe, she had asked the Department of Agriculture if South Africa’s food was safe, and was told that everything was fine. She asked if the three departments had waited until the Universities of Stellenbosch and Western Cape had come up with the report on meat mislabelling until they started investigating meat labelling, or if alarm bells had started to ring before then. Even consumer groups responsible for food safety had not approached the government departments with complaints, while people from all walks of life had been contacting her declaring that they were being cheated and that our food was not safe. It appeared that the departments were turning a blind eye and officials were not performing according to their mandate. She asked the DoH what it had observed from its own investigations.

The Chairperson (Health portfolio committee) asked what was being done while the strategy was being developed and finalised. People were entitled to know what they were eating. 

Mr Abram asked what had been done to at least limit the damage since the university reports had hit the headlines.

Mr Daniel Matlala, Deputy Director: Food Control, DoH, replied that the DoH ensured that the functions delegated to the 52 municipalities in the country complied with regulations of the Foodstuffs Act.  All facilities that sold food had to be authorised by local municipalities and comply with food health regulations, including correct meat labelling.  The DoH provided training to inspectors at the 52 municipalities to ensure that retailers continually complied. Together with DAFF and municipalities, the DoH had compiled a list of all the facilities that imported meat and had also performed a pilot analysis of test results at those facilities. The results had been made available. The National Consumer Commission (NCC) had been mandated to take over further investigations.

Ms Moilwa said that the NCC had communicated with Europe at the time that the horse meat scandal had been publicised. After investigations, the NCC had found that there was no horse-meat contamination in the meat imported into South Africa. The NCC had also followed all leads received after the report was publicised, as well as the DAFF leads received with regard to importers of particular exotic species, to try to identify such importers in the market, to test labels and establish what happened after processing took place. The NCC had interacted with importers, processers, retailers, municipalities and with the DoH in terms of the reports on inspections done over the past 12 months. Some municipalities had not provided information, as some inspectors did not understand their role with regard to meat and meat products.

Ms Unati Speirs, Director: DTI, said that the proposed framework was important for the collaboration of departments on all issues around food safety and food control. It could be an issue of ‘meat today and another food product the next day’. The DTI performed quality assurance and standardization of content, weight and quality.

Mr Lulama Potwana, Director: Consumer Protection and Competition Policy, DTI, said that the DTI regulated the matter in line with the Consumer Protection Act, which was replete with sections that related to the particular meat labelling matter.  Section 24 of the Act prohibited deceptive or misleading marketing of meat. Since the outbreak of the meat scandal, on 22 March 2013, the Minister had issued a notice requiring that all meat products had to have a trade description, as described in the Act. Even prior to the outbreak of the meat scandal, Section 41 prohibited false and deceptive representation and Section 29 required that both the producer and importer may not market food in a manner that was likely to imply a false or misleading representation. The NCC would continue to investigate whether any of those provisions had been contravened. DTI had been proactive prior to the scandal and today on 21 June 2013 was the last day for comments.

Ms Moilwa added that one of the biggest challenges was the science for determining the presence or absence of anything in the product. Based on submissions to the NCC, including those from the Universities of the North West and Stellenbosch, the question was whether DNA testing could be relied upon to confirm the presence or absence of anything when looking at sensitivity and substitution. It was well and good to label the ingredients and to teach consumers to read the labels, but the interdepartmental task team’s big challenge was to determine whether the label was correct. The science was still “in the air” and there was not a consistent way to assist consumers in making their choice, nor labelling regulations to say how to test for compliance. The scientists could report that there was widespread mislabelling, but had not submitted confirmation that DNA testing could be used to verify the presence or absence of an ingredient, or distinguish between adulteration and the contamination of food.

The Chairperson (Health) asked for clarification on which provinces and which municipalities were running primary health care, as this created confusion when it came to health inspectors. He also asked if the municipalities had the capacity to carry out what they were asked to do.

The Chairperson (Agriculture) asked if there was capacity to deal with inspections and meat labelling.

Mr Mooketsa Ramasodi, Chief Director: Inspection and Quarantine Services, DAFF replied that in 2007, an audit on inspection services had been conducted and funding had been given to DAFF to improve inspection services. However, in 2011, the funds had dried up and each year DAFF had been requesting funding to respond to lack of capacity. He requested that the Committee assist with a funding application to National Treasury to improve capacity.

Ms Aneliswa Cele, Director: Environmental Health, DoH, replied that the health inspectors, now called Environmental Health Practitioners were employed by the municipalities, district municipalities and metros. After the seminar in May, the Director-General of Health had written to SALGA to address the matter and on the 20 June 2013, a SALGA summit had been held. The resolutions from the deliberations on municipal health status would be shared with the DoH. At the meeting, it was agreed that there were not enough Environmental Health Practitioners to deal with the multiple municipal functions relating to food management - they did not normally concentrate on food safety. The current human resource capacity was a serious challenge to the country. All food-related health issues would be controlled by the Municipal Health Services Framework.

Ms Moilwa added that the NCC had met with the inspectors at the municipalities to ensure they understood their role. The NCC had identified the challenges already mentioned by the previous speakers, as well as the responsibilities that had been devolved to provinces, which was where there was huge risk, as inspections had to be conducted on the ground.

Ms Steyn asked why imports from Brazil and India had been stopped. She had asked DAFF the question before and had been told only that “it was stopped”, but with no explanation as to why.

Dr Mpho Maja, Director: Animal Health, DAFF, replied that in December 2012, Brazil had reported a case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. Trade partners had then suspended the importation of beef from Brazil because of its risk to human life. The Brazilian authorities had submitted additional information to the Organisation Internationale des Epizooties (OIE), who had subsequently evaluated the information and reinstated the classification that Mad Cow Disease caused negligible risk to the animal and human population.  DAFF had requested additional information from the OIE to ensure that the Brazilian authorities had control measures in place and that they were not feeding cattle meal (ground cattle parts) back to cattle. Thereafter, South Africa would consider resuming importation of beef from Brazil. The importation of buffalo from India had been stopped because India had reneged on its 2010 agreement to provide quarterly Foot & Mouth disease surveillance.  

Mr Abram commented that the seminar and framework were about good intentions, but he was sceptical about departments and practical implementation. The red meat issue had involved senior counsel at a great price, because the state department had failed as a result of improper surveillance. He then asked if inspection services monitored all imports and could guarantee that the food was fresh, pure and not contaminated. He knew that the DTI was having problems with the Association of Meat Importers and Exporters which like any business, was profit-oriented and would source a commodity at the best price to make a profit. Furthermore, the national and local government lacked horizontal mandates and communication.  Local officials could not comprehend what they were supposed to do. All the requirements to implement something were not there. Were people of the country receiving the service to which they were entitled?  Financial resources were overburdened with workshops for legislation while there was a lack of inspectors, and inspectors who needed training.  What could parliament do to ensure uniformity when there were “too many chiefs and no indians”?  When the National Portfolio Committee on Agriculture invited the nine MECs from provinces to attend a meeting, they were lucky if one MEC attended. Mr Abram believed that if the MEC, DG or any other official was not prepared to come to Parliament to account, the Committee should tell the President that they were not interested in the safety of the nation. To resolve the matter, one instruction from the highest office should say: “Do this. If you don’t do it, you don’t deserve to be there!’

Ms H Msweli (IFP) said that she was concerned that there were not enough inspectors, not only for labelling, but for the preservation of primary health in general. Prevention was better than cure and awareness and education had to be strengthened. Although monitoring had been identified as a challenge, there was nothing in the annexure which spoke to monitoring. She asked for information about the SALGA meeting held the previous day, to be shared. The Committee could not wait while people were suffering.

Ms Steyn asked if SARS could give the information on countries from which the meat came. Huge quantities of foreign meat were imported. Therefore it should be no surprise that it ended up in our food. She also asked how SARS fitted into the structure.

The SARS representative, a Mr Albertus, was further requested to add input at the meeting but he responded that he did not have a mandate to make representations on behalf of SARS. A written submission would be prepared in response to the questions raised.

Mr R Cebekhulu (IFP) commented that when he was at school, his teacher had told the students that South Africa was a dumping ground for first world countries. It seemed that officials and even commissioners became too relaxed after taking up office. Foreign countries scrutinised our exports, and citrus black spot and ostrich meat issues had negatively affected South Africa’s food industry.

Ms Steyn said she was concerned about the capacity to monitor and inspect imported goods. Tons of meat and other products that were refused entry to other countries were landing in South Africa. She asked DAFF how many products that were refused entry in another country were imported into SA and what percentage of import consignments was inspected. According to a report by food inspection officials: “Officials within customs could not electronically alert or send pre-arrival notification on consignments. Therefore it was difficult for DAFF or DoH officials to know of any product … unless the importer voluntarily informs the competence … It is currently not a requirement that the person submitting prior notice of imported goods must disclose the name of the country that has refused entry of that product where applicable”.  She also asked how sure DAFF was that our import requirements were on a par with other countries in terms of standards. She asked for a list of South Africa’s standards and international standards.

Ms Steyn further commented that rather than wait on the NCC, and strategies and publications, department officials should go to supermarkets and check the food labels and witness the gross non-compliance. An example of an incident of non-compliance should be made public, as these people were cheating the public. Water buffalo had been imported from India for R5/kg, labelled as beef and sold for R80/kg. This was of concern. She asked for a time frame for implementation.

Dr Songabe replied that on the one hand, importers allege that DAFF had stringent import standards that were over and above World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, and on the other hand, domestic producers were saying that DAFF had the weakest free-for-all import situation.  It was important to put measures in place which were proportional to risk identified and were able to offer South Africa a proper level of protection. DAFF was in discussions on how to address these two aspects of imports in one go.  Each meat consignment container was tested for basic microbials.

Ms D Robinson (DA) said that she was concerned about roadside slaughter and contaminated meat sold on the street. Unemployed people could be trained to follow a protocol to check on the basic concerns, after which the experts could follow up. She agreed that there were “too many chiefs and not enough indians” to look out for people on the ground. She encouraged consumer education to inform and empower consumers on a long term basis.

Dr Songabe replied that informal roadside slaughter was one of the biggest challenges for the veterinary community, as the issues related to the way in which people lived and generated their small economies, etc. Each province responded differently to the slaughtering of animals. Some provinces had built structures to bleed the animal and cool the meat on the side of the road. On the other hand, the Western Cape had been working on the categorisation of communal abattoirs. The veterinary community was seeking a model to satisfy aspects of health while not inhibiting social customs.

Ms Pilusa-Mosoane asked if the issue of mislabelling of food was considered an emergency.

Ms Pilusa-Mosoane said it was clear that DAFF was coordinating the effort. She suggested student bursaries for the training of inspectors would stop the on-going call for capacity.

Mr Abram suggested that the Committee should support DAFF and make recommendations to National Treasury in terms of funding, to address the challenges.

The Chairperson commented that consumer activism was at its lowest in South Africa. People of South Africa generally lacked attention to rules and regulations and lacked the capacity to enforce rules and regulations. Naming, shaming and convictions were necessary to turn the situation around.
He also commented that there had not been feedback on the previous meeting’s questions on the status of unregistered abattoirs.

Dr Songabe replied that the question on the registration of abattoirs related to Limpopo Province. In some provinces, abattoirs were inspected and certified each year, and issues were related to the expiry and renewal of their certification. However, all the abattoir establishments in the country were registered. The broader issue was the problem of access to abattoirs. A solution would be proposed at an independent meeting, which would also deal with overall issues in the rural areas.

The Chairperson concluded that by the first week in August, the Committees would expect to receive a plan on how inspection and labelling and capacity would be taken forward by the coordinated structure. He asked for recommendations on what other areas should be considered when engaging National Treasury to request funding.

Dr Ntshabele said that an audit review would look at cross-training of some inspectors in the field so that they could perform multiple inspections. Training manuals with standard operating procedures were in place for this purpose, to resolve capacity issues in terms of the action plan. Over the past ten years, DAFF had battled with funding for bursaries and graduates. A consequent problem was that the industry had been served by the same number of veterinarians over the past ten years. There also were no veterinary vacancies, which was also a capacity issue. He requested that the Committees assist with National Treasury to secure additional funds for new posts for veterinarians.

Regarding import control, the coordinated structure was tackling the whole problem, beyond meat inspection. Permits had to be amended so that an official at import inspection knew precisely where the import was going, and so that an official could receive and open the container at its destination.

Mr Mannya concluded that DAFF was currently leading the Task Team and the coordinated structure would harmonise information and strengthen what was currently being done, such as penalties for non-compliance and immediate collaboration in dealing with abattoirs. The coordinated framework proposal had missed the current cycle and the earliest possible date for Cabinet approval would be in August. The team could not guarantee that it could present a firm plan in August.

Dr Pillay concluded that the DoH had taken note of the comments, particularly around the training of inspectors and skills for turnaround capacity.  The DoH was waiting on a report from SALGA on how it was dealing with meat inspection. It was also performing an audit on municipal skills and where the training of inspectors was required.

Ms Cele added that currently there were 262 Environmental Health Practitioners sitting at home due to the misdirection of funding at municipalities. The DoH was working hard to try to correct the matter.

The Chairperson commented that these 262 practitioners could be ‘the low hanging fruit of the structure,’ and that the issue would be included in the submission to National Treasury.

Ms Speirs concluded that the DTI was awaiting the NCC to complete its investigation. She agreed that naming and shaming would be effective in addressing non-compliance. The DTI would continue to raise awareness and address the issues together with the other departments, as a team.

A member of public, Ms De Villiers, a concerned consumer, shared feedback on her engagement with retailers on misleading marketing and labelling. The Chairperson thanked her for her input, but said that her comments would be received at a separate hearing, rather than at the current meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.
 

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