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Animal Frontiers - International Perspectives

What is meat in South Africa?


This article in

  1. Vol. 7 No. 4, p. 71-75
    Published: September 21, 2017

    * Corresponding author(s):
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  1. Sara Wilhelmina Erasmusa and
  2. Louwrens Christiaan Hoffman *a
  1. a Department of Animal Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Private Bag X1, Matieland (Stellenbosch) 7602, South Africa


  • Meat is the major component of the South African cuisine, and it consists of various domesticated and wild animal species. Meat consumption depends mainly on its availability, its price, and the heritage and culture of South Africans.

  • South Africa has a diversity of ethnic groups (with different incomes and cultures) who have different perceptions of what meat is and how it should be prepared and consumed. This complicates the regulatory definition of “meat,” its processed products, and its by-products.

Development of the South African Meat Cuisine

Meat forms an integral part of the South African cuisine. In fact, for most South Africans, a meal without meat is considered not to be a meal at all. The consumption of meat dates to the precolonial period (before the arrival of stock-raising) where the indigenous Khoisan (pastoral Khoikhoi/Hottentots and foraging San/Bushmen) groups hunted wild game to survive (Davenport and Saunders, 2000). Bantu-speaking groups (Black African) later introduced the cultivation of crops and domestic cattle, which they traded with the Khoikhoi groups who herded small livestock (i.e., fat-tailed sheep and goats) (Davenport and Saunders, 2000) while the Dutch later imported several domestic animals (i.e., sheep, dairy cattle, cattle, and pigs). In effect, the ancestral consumptive traits of meat are reflected in the modern cuisine of South Africans. Reminiscent of the Khoisan who fire-roasted and air-dried meat, South Africans are well known for their barbecue (called braai in Afrikaans) (Figure 1) and biltong (a dried preserved meat product). The black tribes in rural communities follow a similar practice of cutting up and drying the meat of animals that had died of accidental or natural causes (Snyman, 1998).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

A braai consisting of meat (a) chicken sosaties (top), lamb chops (middle), ribs (bottom right), and boerewors (bottom left) and fish (b) kreef (crayfish).


Braai’ed meat is also sometimes served with a maize meal porridge (called pap in Afrikaans), derived from the Black African heritage, and called pap and vleis. It was only during the 17th century that colonization and immigration started having an influence on the indigenous South African cuisine (Grigson et al., 1974). Europeans from the Netherlands (since 1652 when the Dutch East India Company settled in Cape Town), Germany, France (Huguenots who fled France from 1685 onward), Italy, Portugal, Greece, and Britain as well as their Indo-Asian slaves or servants brought with them various spices and herbs along with new techniques and methods for meat preservation, processing, and cooking (Davenport and Saunders, 2000). They also quickly learned skills, such as hunting and fishing, from the indigenous people to whom food was a matter of survival (Snyman, 1998). A cooking style known as the Cape Dutch and characterized using spices (i.e., cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and chili peppers) was developed through the different styles of the slaves from the Far East (i.e., Java, Sumatra, and Malaysia) as well as the European settlers. The Cape Malay people brought an Indonesian influence, which led to the inclusion of spicy curries and the creation of typical South African meat dishes such as bredie (stew made from fish, mutton, or beef), pickled fish, and bobotie (spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping) (Grigson et al., 1974). It is known that bredies developed through the need to tenderize the tough meat of the cattle bought from the Hottentots while curry and spices were useful to disguise slightly tainted meat (Grigson et al., 1974). In addition, curried meat dishes were also introduced to South Africa through Indian laborers in the 19th century. In fact, Durban (situated in the KwaZulu-Natal province) is known as the largest “Indian city” outside India. Apart from the use of spices, other typical meat dishes rely on the use of offal, such as the Black African stewed tripe dish Mala mogodu, which is made from animal intestines (mala) and stomach lining (mogodu). The Afrikaners (White ethnic group) also make a similar traditional dish from offal called afval, spiced with curry (kerrie-afval). It is important to note that in some regions, certain meat products and dishes are more prominent than in others. For example, the Karoo region is known for its Karoolam (Karoo lamb) where the meat is characterized by a distinct herbaceous aroma and flavor owing to the fragrant bushes it consumes (Erasmus et al., 2016). Therefore, the place of production or origin, the dominant ethnic groups located within a region (e.g., Indians in Durban) as well as the climatic conditions and natural vegetation [e.g., snoek (Thyrsites atun) along the Cape West Coast (Figure 2)] are a few factors that determine the prevalence of meat products within a given region.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Fish, such as (a) snoek, are caught by line fishermen and usually (b) braai’ed.


The aim of this article is to provide the reader with a clear understanding of what meat is in South Africa from a cultural as well as a regulatory point of view. Given the young history of the country, it is evident that South Africa has developed an intricate meat cuisine over the last few centuries. Furthermore, recent studies also indicate that food consumption in South Africa is shifting toward a more Western-orientated diet (Ronquest-Ross et al., 2015) with indigenous ingredients and traditional dishes being replaced with convenient, sometimes cheaper, ready meals (Snyman, 1998). Colonialism played an important role as different population or ethnic groups were introduced and developed in South Africa– each contributing toward the definition of meat in South Africa.

Meat Consumption

Currently there are four main population/ethnic groups in South Africa: Black African [Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Swai), Sotho-Tswana, Tsonga, and Venda people], Colored [people of mixed lineage (African slaves, indigenous Khoisan, Africans, and whites)], Indian/Asian, and White [Afrikaners (Dutch, German, and French Huguenot descendants), English-speakers (British descendants), and other European descendants of immigrants] (StatsSA, 2016). The total population stood at 55.6 million in 2016, where 44.9 million were Black African, 4.9 million Colored, 1.4 million Indian/Asian, and 4.5 million White (StatsSA, 2016). When food (particularly meat) consumption is explored, it is important to take into account the different population groups as each one has their own customs and traditions. Hence, the results presented through surveys are likely to be influenced by the majority of the population (i.e., Black African). In addition, factors such as religion, age, and income also play a role.

A recent report on the food consumption changes in South Africa since 1994 highlights the fact that meat consumption has increased, particularly that of poultry and pork along with value-added processed meat products (Ronquest-Ross et al., 2015). The consumption of offal (4.7 and 4.8 kg per capita per year in 2009 and 2013, respectively) together with fish and seafood (7.5 and 6.2 kg per capita per year in 2009 and 2013, respectively) also increased since 1994 (Ronquest-Ross et al., 2015; FAOSTAT, 2017). The increase in the consumption of poultry and pork does not come as a surprise as price is a crucial factor influencing the purchasing intent of consumers (Nielsen, 2012). The price of fresh chicken and pork retails roughly 60 and 30%, respectively, lower than that of beef and lamb/mutton (NAMC, 2016). Hence, the trend is that consumers will purchase meat that is more cost-effective. This trend also correlates with and is driven by the low-income consumers, particularly given that the largest population group of South African (81%) has a low income with 71% of the group classed as poor (NMW-RI, 2015). Therefore, price, together with income, can be seen as important factors for the consumptive traits.

The accessibility of meat is another factor that determines meat consumption. For instance, in rural areas, consumers have limited access to meat and less variety of meat sources to choose from. The chances are also greater that they will presumably purchase their animal protein from informal markets where no or very little regulations are applicable. Impoverished settlements will purchase cheaper products such as processed meat products (e.g., polonies, meat spreads, sausages, etc., that typically contain high levels of mechanical-recovered chicken meat) or lower quality meat cuts (e.g., shank, flank, brisket, etc.) or offal. Goat meat is also widely consumed within rural communities on the informal market (generally used for religious or traditional purposes) even though it covers a very small percentage of the commercial livestock sector (DAFF, 2015). However, processed meat products have an increased risk of food fraud as ingredients (either animal of plant proteins) can easily be replaced or added. Compared with fresh, intact meat, it is easier to disguise the origins of constituents in a meat mixture. In fact, Cawthorn et al. (2013) verified the high incidence of species substitution and mislabeling of processed meat products in the domestic meat market of South Africa. They found that inexpensive components were more frequently added to meat products sold in the provinces with low-income groups as these individuals may often be less concerned about product composition and more interested in cost savings. Again, this highlights the fact that price plays an important role concerning meat consumption. However, religious groups are more concerned about the composition of meat products as their dietary laws have restrictions on the consumption of certain animal proteins such as pork (Muslim/Halaal and Jewish/Kashrut) or beef (Hindu). Furthermore, high-income groups are more concerned about the origin and nature of the meat and how it fits in with their healthy lifestyles. Regardless of income level, consumers have the right to trust that the information provided on meat products is correct. To protect consumers from being sold incorrectly labeled or inferior meat products, regulations are in place.

Meat Regulations

The regulatory bodies responsible for food legislation in South Africa include the Department of Health (DoH), the Department of Agriculture (DoA), and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Relating to meat, these national departments regulate the slaughter of animals as well as the safety, quality, sale, and labeling of fresh and processed meat products. Regulatory bodies and the regulations of importance to the meat scientist in South Africa are shown in Figure 3. The DoH’s Health Act and International Health Regulations (Figure 3) regulates the hygiene for food at premises, ports, and airports and on vessels and aircrafts. The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act governs the labeling and advertising of meat and meat products to ensure that consumers are not misled. In addition, the Consumer Protection Act makes it illegal for consumers to be misled in any way while the Agricultural Product Standards Act makes strict provisions for the classification, treatment, and sale of agricultural products. Furthermore, the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) provides national standards against which companies can seek certification, whereas the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) ensures that certain products (i.e., canned meat, canned fish, crustaceans, frozen fish, marine mollusks, etc.) comply with a set of technical standards (Figure 3). For the latter, the compulsory specification for frozen fish, frozen marine mollusks, and frozen products derived from them applies to their handling, preparation, processing, packing, transportation, freezing, storage, and quality (DTI, 2003).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Schematic representation of the important meat regulatory bodies in South Africa.


In South Africa, meat is sold to the consumer through supermarkets and butcheries. These outlets obtain their meat from registered abattoirs where the safety, quality, and traceability of meat are strictly controlled. The South African abattoir industry is highly regulated due to the human health risk that may be posed by diseases or contaminated meat ending up in the supply chain. Therefore, the Meat Safety Act (DAFF, 2000) and its regulations (i.e., Red Meat, R. 1072/2004; Poultry, R. 153/2006, and Ostrich, R. 54/2007) regulate imports/exports, maintain national standards in abattoirs, and promote the safety of meat and animal products (DAFF, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2007). The animals to which the said Act applies are shown in Table 1.

View Full Table | Close Full ViewTable 1.

The animals (meat sources) to which the Meat Safety Act (DAFF, 2000) applies.

Domesticated animals Wild game
Red meat Antelope
Bovine animals (including the species bubalus bubalis and bison bison), donkey, farmed deer, goat, horse, kangaroo, mule, pig, and sheep Blesbok (Damaliscus dorcas philipsi), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli), eland (Taurotragus oryx), gemsbok (Oiyx gazela), gray rhebok (Pelea capreolus), impala (Aepyceros melampus), kudu (Tragelaphus stepsiceros), mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula), springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis)
Poultry (including game birds)
Duck, fowl, goose, guinea fowl, pigeon, quail, partridge, pheasant, and turkey
Ostrich and other related ratite species Other
Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), elephant (Loxodonta africana), and hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)

Presently, regulations are in draft form relating to the slaughter of wild game, crocodiles, and rabbits. The Game Meat Scheme of 2012 has been developed for implementing the provisions of the Meat Safety Act (DAFF, 2000) in the game industry. While the DoA still needs to finalize the regulations for game meat, registered game abattoirs have implemented red meat regulations on all their game products. This ensures safer and more hygienic practices within the game meat industry, especially since the popularity of meat and dried meat products (i.e., biltong and droëwors) from wild game species has lately increased due to consumer needs for leaner foods with more exotic qualities (Hoffman et al., 2004; Hoffman and Wiklund, 2006). In addition, rabbits are currently slaughtered in poultry abattoirs. Unlike European countries (e.g., Italy), rabbit meat is uncommonly consumed in South Africa and has only recently been introduced to the market and different ethnic groups (Hoffman et al., 2005). Consumers’ associations with rabbits and rabbit meat is a major limitation for its demand. The associations also vary between ethnic groups as the White and Colored groups associate rabbits with pets and unclean meat. The latter is due to their Christian beliefs or likely the associations of rabbits with rodents (Hoffman et al., 2005). Furthermore, the cultural beliefs of a Black African group (Xhosas) prohibits them from eating rabbit meat while other black respondents associate rabbit with wildlife and hunting, making it more suitable for men than for women given that they perceive hunting as a manly task. It is interesting to note that for early Dutch settlers, rabbit meat was a common meat source (Coetzee, 1977). In fact, other animals sold at a market in 1665 consisted of beef, mutton/lamb, pork, hartebeest, eland, wild pig, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, steenbok, ystervark (Cape porcupine), dassie (rock hyrax), wild geese, mountain duck, wild peacock, korhaan (bustard), and different fish species (Coetzee, 1977). Hence, the changes in consumption show how South African consumers have developed and transformed with time. It is important that the regulations stay up to date with the trends and consumer demands for meat. Yet, in the current regulations there are a considerable amount of inconsistencies.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Representation of the South African meat products or dishes produced from domesticated animals and fish.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Walkie Takies dish (chicken feet shown).


According to the Meat Safety Act, meat is defined as “those parts of a slaughtered animal which are ordinarily intended for human and animal consumption and which have not undergone any processing other than deboning, cutting up, mincing, cooling or freezing, and includes meat which (a) has been treated with a substance that does not substantially alter the original characteristics thereof; and (b) assumes its original characteristics after a substance referred to in (a) has physically been removed therefrom” (DAFF, 2000). The other definitions are similar, also stating that it excludes the musculature of the lips, snout, scalp, and ears (DoH, 1990; SANS, 2011; DoA, 2015). Yet, there is a great deal of confusion around processed meat. For instance, the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act states that processed meat is any process that alters its original state, but excludes mincing (DoH, 2014), while the national standard states that processing is a process that changes the anatomical wholeness, such as mincing (SANS, 2011). Figure 4 was compiled using the definitions from the meat regulations for meat, carcass, and offal together with the well-known South African meat products or dishes. Another discrepancy can be seen with the classification of edible offal. Walkie Talkies (Figure 5), grilled or deep-fried chicken heads and feet, are very popular in black settlements and sold by street vendors in informal markets. However, according to South African National Standards (SANS, 2011), this is not seen as edible offal (Figure 4). Another example is peertjies (spiced lamb’s testicles) (Figure 4). Although these examples are simple, it provides one with an impression of the complexity of the regulatory system and how some regulations from certain national departments may contradict that of other departments. For the future, it is important that the regulatory system attempts to establish some sort of consistency. Not only would this make the system more credit worthy, but it will also restrict possible loopholes.



The South African context of meat is deeply rooted in the heritage of the people. The demand is greatly influenced by its availability, price, and traditional usage as well as the consumer’s associations and perceptions. The meat sources in South Africa are as broad as the ethnicity of the citizens. Domestic animals and wild game are the main meat sources, where the meat as well as the offal are utilized and incorporated into traditional dishes. The informal market provides meat to a large portion of the population yet, it is poorly regulated. On the other hand, the formal market is strictly regulated to ensure the safety and quality of the meat. However, inconsistencies within the system, between national departments, provide opportunities for loopholes and consequently food fraud. Hence, it is important that these aspects are addressed to ensure that consumers are not misled.

Dr. Sara Wilhelmina is a Postdoctoral Researcher of Meat Science at the Department of Animal Sciences, Stellenbosch University. She obtained her Ph.D. in Food Science at Stellenbosch University in March 2017. She has published and presented (at international conferences) several papers on her lamb-based research using descriptive sensory analysis, near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), and proton-transfer reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS) for the authentication of regionally unique South African lamb. She is recognized as a young and inspiring food integrity scientist (FoodIntegrity Conference 2017, Parma) and is currently furthering her career in this field.

Distinguished Professor Louw Hoffman has two passions in life: to work with young people and to do research. He has managed to combine these passions with his two hobbies, hunting and fishing, by doing research on meat with an emphasis on game/exotic meat and fish flesh. He has published more than 260 peer-reviewed papers and has addressed numerous local and international audiences on his research. In 2013, his research on game meat and its contribution to international knowledge was recognized internationally when the American Meat Science Association awarded him the AMSA International Lectureship Award.




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