Many South Africans that stumbled across the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development’s (DALRRD) proposed update for the country’s Meat Safety Act may have been confused and concerned to find rhinoceros, giraffe, elephant and emu on the list of meats that can be consumed.
The proposal, published on 28 February to amend Schedule 1 of the Meat Safety Act of 2000, significantly expanded its list of animal species, some of which are endangered and exotic. But this does not mean that unsuspecting meat eaters could find critically endangered rhinoceros steak on their plates.
Clearing the air
Professor Arno Hugo from University of the Free State food science division explained that the list of species was extended to make sure that if they are consumed, this is subject to inspection to ensure hygiene and meat safety.
After realising that the proposed update was not being interpreted correctly, the department released a statement in April to clarify some misconceptions.
The date for public comment on the draft was even extended to 30 June.
South Africa’s Meat Safety Act of 2000 exists to promote meat safety and the safety of animal products, establishing and maintaining national standards in abattoirs, regulating the import and export of meat, and to create meat safety schemes.
However, it does not distinguish which animals are to be slaughtered.
“The implication of this is that animals that are not listed in the schedule may be slaughtered without any regulatory oversight in terms of meat safety.
“The DALRRD and competent provincial authorities can therefore not enforce the legislation on animals not listed and therefore anyone can slaughter such an animal without conformity to any standards,” the department explained.
DALRRD’s update to Schedule 1, which in its current form states that any animal can be slaughtered, included a list of 75 animal orders, families, subfamilies or genera to which the Meat Safety Act would apply.
The update acknowledged that animals included on the list could be listed as threatened species, “and therefore their slaughter for human and animal consumption must be in line with the relevant conservation provisions”.
The department explained that the update does not encourage that the listed animals be slaughtered, but advised on how the animals are slaughtered, so as to implement compliance with animal welfare requirements.
A report was even published by Africa Check in May, after an article claimed that the list of animals in the update meant the consumption of, for example rhino meat, was to be legalised. This was proven to be incorrect, and emphasised that the update, and the Meat Safety Act, seeks only to discuss how animals are slaughtered, not which of them are killed.
“The South African government is not aiming to legalise rhino consumption,” Africa Check concluded.
“I think it may, for example, happen that a game farmer is granted a permit to allow an international trophy hunter to hunt a rhinoceros in South Africa. A trophy hunter would not be interested in the meat of the animal.
“To prevent the 1,500kg of meat from going to waste, it may be better to utilise it for human consumption. That is probably why it is listed under the Meat Safety Act. Under this act, there is the insurance that the meat will be safe for human consumption because it needs to be inspected. It is unlikely that rhinoceros will be harvested in large numbers for general meat consumption,” Hugo explained.
Decisions regarding which animals are legally allowed to be slaughtered “lies outside of the mandate of the Meat Safety Act,” the DALRRD stated. Animals that are protected due to their conservation status fall under the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
The slaughter of consumption of meat from endangered species requires permission from conservation, food control, environmental health and animal welfare legislations, said the department.
One of the animals listed in the Meat Safety Act update is the kiwi bird, which comes from New Zealand.
A publication from New Zealand, Newsroom, wrote an article in May which raised concerns among officials in New Zealand. The kiwi bird is a flightless, shy bird roughly the size of a domestic chicken that is nocturnal, and prone to being wiped out by predators like dogs, unless they are protected. And apparently they taste disgusting.
At present, 20% of kiwi bird populations in New Zealand are being managed. And according to Newsroom, authorities want the kiwi bird removed from South Africa’s Act update.
New Zealand conservation minister Eugene Sage told the publication that engagements with South Africa’s government are underway because of the bird’s unusual inclusion and that kiwis are protected by the country’s Wildlife Act. This means that their consumption is not legal.
Other conservation groups in New Zealand are also reportedly looking into the matter. Although a host of animals from other regions have called South Africa home, there is no clear record of any kiwi bird breeding facilities or kiwis currently residing in any zoos in the country.
Interestingly, emus, Australia’s tallest native bird, are also on South Africa’s list, but these creatures are farmed locally for oil. This has been going for 12 years.
Farmer’s Weekly reported that the emu’s fat gland, designed to survive the harsh Australian Outback, produces up to 10 litres of oil that is rendered down for cosmetic and health products.
Let the wild animals be
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the risks of consuming meat, and the connection between humans consuming animals, and contracting diseases.
And the wildlife trade will only exacerbate already increasing unknown disease transmissions around the world.
University of the Free State professor of microbial biochemical and food biotechnology, Robert Bragg, explained that from a microbiological perspective, there is always a risk in consuming meat from exotic animals.
“We just need to think about the current Covid-19 situation which is widely believed to have started in a live meat market where exotic meat was being slaughtered and sold,” Bragg warned.
Although the conditions animals are kept in while being traded play a significant role in the advent of zoonotic diseases (transferred from animals to humans), the United Nations Environment Programme flagged the potential increase in pandemics four years ago. Up to 75% of all infectious diseases affecting humans were zoonotic in 2016.
SARS-CoV-2 is the result of a spillover of disease, which occurs when a virus or bacteria moves from a host animal to a human. A host of other illnesses also have zoonotic roots, such as Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), measles, Ebola and malaria.
Vegetarians and vegans are far from immune to the novel coronavirus, despite false social media claims containing quotes from the World Health Organisation (WHO). But the more meat is consumed, and the more exotic our taste becomes, either due to necessity or curiosity, the more the need to slaughter wild animals remains, and with it, the ever-present threat of another worldwide pandemic.
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