South Africa imported 80 tonnes of horse meat in 2017 according to data from the International Trade Centre, a United Nations agency.
That is a 51% increase from 2016, says Wandile Sihlobo, agricultural economist and head of agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz).
Only 5,000 kilograms were re-exported to the Maldives and Swaziland according to trade data – leaving about 75,000 kilograms in the country,
"Looking at trade data, it is unclear whether this was for animal or human consumption," says Sihlobo.
Horse meat that arrives in South Africa has to be certified by veterinary authorities from the department of agriculture, forestries and fisheries (Daff).
But, according to Gretna de Wet, who deals with horse meat imports at Daff, the department does not issue permits for the meat if it is intended for animal consumption. Only horse meat that is expressly intended for human consumption is certified by the authorities.
The CEO of the Association of Meat Importers and Exporters, David Wolpert, says the imported horse meat is probably meant for human consumption.
Most of the 2017 imports were from Brazil, and landed in South Africa at a price of just R16.72 per kilogram, according to trade data.
In terms of a bilateral trade agreement there is a 25% margin of preference for the import of horse meat (technically "meat of horses, asses, mules or hinnies, fresh, chilled or frozen") from Brazil. That means horse meat imports from Brazil carry a duty rate one quarter less than that levied on imports from other countries, says Rian Geldenhuys an international trade lawyer at Trade Law Chambers in Cape Town.
Director of Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (FACTS) Harris Steinman says it wouldn't be surprising if parallel distribution networks for meat exist.
"When tested for horse or even kangaroo meat in products from high-end stores, traces of the mentioned species are not found. But when you pull products from some of the low-end stores or even spaza shops, some contained traces of the species in the past."
Although it is not illegal to sell or consume horse meat in South Africa, food producers are legally required to state on the packaging that a product contains horse meat.
"The issue in some instances is that the labelling may be in a foreign language because the product is an import," says Steinman.
In 2013, researchers at Stellenbosch University found "a high incidence of species substitution and mislabelling" by analysing meat products from around South Africa using DNA identification techniques. Of the 139 samples of minced meats, burger patties, deli meats, sausages and dried meats, 68% contained species not declared on packaging.
Pork and chicken were the most common addition, but tests also showed up donkey, goat and water buffalo.
Such incidents are not limited to South Africa. Also in 2013, Irish inspectors discovered horse meat in processed beef products, in a scandal that later widened across Europe.
At the time South Africa had been importing R4.1 million worth of horse meat a year. As the graph below shows, imports plummeted in the wake of the scandal.
However, Brazilian exports of horse meat started picking up again in recent years.
When one food distributor is caught out, the rest of the rogue players go underground, Seinman says. They may then reemerge again, years later.
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