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Protected Products: What Makes Lamb From South Africa’s Karoo And France’s Mont Saint-Michel So Special

The Oasis Reporters

March 31, 2024







Sheep grazing in the Karoo. Getty Images

Johann Kirsten, Stellenbosch University

A meal or food shopping experience can be more interesting and enjoyable when you know more about a particular product, like what region it came from and the culture that shaped it. Knowing what makes the food “unique” can improve the tasting experience.


Think about drinking an ice-cold glass of “real” Champagne from France or the satisfaction of serving your dinner guests “Parma ham” from Italy’s Parma region.


In 1994 the World Trade Organisation put in place an agreement on intellectual property (Trips) that had a section on Geographical Indications. This increased the protection of certain products, and extended it to more countries. The rights are territorial – the name of a product can only be used if it is sourced from a designated country or region. All members of the WTO are required to make sure this protection happens in their territories.


As a result of the agreement most countries realised they had food products with unique “backstories”. Examples include: Basmati rice (India and Pakistan); Darjeeling tea (India) and Café de Colombia (Colombia).


African countries have also joined the global Geographical Indication family: there’s Poivre de Penja (Penja pepper) from Cameroon, for example. And in 2021 South Africa registered Rooibos, a locally grown fragrant plant used to make tea. In 2023 it registered Karoo lamb. This is meat from lambs born and raised in the Karoo, a semi-desert area of the country which gives it a distinctive flavour.


This means that Karoo lamb has its own Geographical Indication protection with its own unique story.


There are similarities between the backstories of Karoo lamb and Mont Saint-Michel lamb, also known as Agneau de Prés-salés du Mont-Saint-Michel (salt meadow lamb).


Lamb: two tales


The story of France’s Agneau de Prés-salés du Mont-Saint-Michel starts in the vast salt marshes that surround the Mont Saint-Michel abbey, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Normandy, France. The marshes are flooded twice daily by the tides of the English Channel. The sheep that roam these salt meadows feed on a variety of grasses and herbs that impart a distinctive flavour to their meat.


The high saline content of the vegetation, combined with the coastal climate, results in lamb that is tender, succulent, and imbued with the essence of the sea. For centuries the farmers have moved their livestock between different grazing areas seasonally, and during spring and summer the sheep are brought to the salt marshes to graze. In 2013, Mont Saint-Michel lamb was given official recognition as a Protected Geographical Indication under European Union law.


This designation acknowledges the unique characteristics of the lamb produced in the bay area and provides legal protection against imitation or misuse of the name. The status ensures that Mont Saint-Michel lamb can only be produced within the designated geographical area and according to specific production criteria outlined in the official regulations.


South Africa’s Karoo lamb story has echoes of this.


The Karoo covers almost 50% of the total area of South Africa and is sparsely populated, far away from major urban and distribution centres. This lonely corner of the earth is home to one of South Africa’s living treasures: flocks of sheep, grazing freely among the scattered shrubs. Their meat is spiced on the hoof as the sheep feed on wild vegetation.


Karoo lamb Geographical Indication can now be traced to its own “salt marshes”, in this case the Karoo’s unique shrubs and grasses (“veld”). According to the statement giving it this special status:


It is only Karoo Lamb when it is a lamb which was born and raised on Karoo veld in the defined Karoo region. It has never been in a feedlot, and never grazed on planted pastures.




Trading these authentic products outside the region of origin and beyond national borders brings into play a host of problems. These include traceability, labelling and consumers being misled. Protecting the reputation and authenticity of these products needs to be done with great care and precision.


Most high value products with intrinsic value lose their reputation through misappropriation, usurpation and simple fraudulent and counterfeit practices. This is why some form of assurance is critical to protect the value of the product.


Rigorous traceability systems are needed to ensure compliance and to provide the necessary consumer assurance. The regional collective organisation, the Karoo Lamb Consortium, tries to ensure the integrity and honesty of all role players – from the farmer to the retailer to the restaurateur.


There are nevertheless opportunities for opportunistic behaviour, dishonesty, shirking and plain food fraud. These include:


    • farmers who market feedlot or pasture lamb as Karoo lamb


    • abattoirs that source from farms outside the region


    • butchers who don’t confirm the origin but sell it as Karoo lamb


    • restaurateurs who tell the naive tourist that the lamb on the plate is from the Karoo when it is actually sourced from a feedlot far away from the Karoo.


Fortunately science can detect the origin of lamb through analysis of the meat and fat. In a 2017 paper researchers showed it was possible to authenticate the origin. Their results showed clearly that fat from Karoo lamb had a higher concentration of key terpenes, validating the direct link with the herbaceous plant samples.


Overall, the analysis shows considerable differences between the Karoo and non-Karoo samples.


This research was followed by an extensive exercise to develop a database for more regions and sub-regions in the Karoo. Scientists can now easily analyse samples from retail shelves and confirm the authenticity of claims on labels.


These techniques have been successfully applied to protect the authenticity of Welsh lamb and New Zealand lamb.The Conversation


Johann Kirsten, Director of the Bureau for Economic Research, Stellenbosch University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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