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How can it be legal for a product called a beef patty to have as little as 36% beef in it, asks Wendy Knowler?

What's Your Beef

Listen to Wendy's on-air segment or read the full story below the podcast.
That’s generally how people react when they hear that a beef patty contains little more than a third beef. But it’s perfectly legal - provided the percentage of beef is revealed prominently on the packaging.

The product which has caused the stir is I&J’s Beefers “beef patties”, the country’s biggest selling frozen beef patties. A colleague of mine at the Times bought a pack for the first time, and was horrified to discover that they only contain 36% beef.
There’s no law specifying a minimum about of meat in “raw processed meat”, which is what those burgers are. As long as the food maker declares it, along with the percentage of water, which is also high in this case, incidentally - 21% - on the front of the pack, the product complies.

That the story has so many consumers going “how can this be?” tells me that a lot of people don’t read food labels at all well. But having said that, that “Beef, 36%” was in very small letters compared with the huge “Beefers" and "Beef Patties” on the front of that pack, so the overwhelming impression created is that the product is predominantly beef, when in fact it’s mostly not.

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As for what’s makes up the remaining 64% of those patties, well, there’s that water, and then mainly soya and flour, which are added to bulk up the patty and enable them to sell them at a relatively cheap price - about R43 for a pack of 10.

Another labeling regulation, known as QUID - Quantitative Ingredient Declaration - states that if a food manufacturer emphasizes a "valuable or characterising" ingredient in the name or description of a product, they have to declare the percentage of that ingredient.

That’s to stop them from trumpeting a key -usually expensive- ingredient but sneakily putting very little of it in the product.

“Our Beefers product complies with this requirement, with the beef and water contents clearly displayed,” I & J’s Group quality assurance manager, Donovan Brickles told me.

There are other not-so-beefy frozen beef burgers on sale, and there are also far beefier burgers to be found in supermarket freezers, but those come at a beefier price: Woolworths sells a 600g pack of 94% beef patties (six) for R69,99 and the 640g pack of 100% beef Spur patties (four) sells for R79,99.

For me, it boils down to this - food manufacturers are well aware of the fact that most consumers base their buying choices primarily on price, and that few examine labels to determine true value.

And that’s why diluting a product with cheap extenders and subtly shrinking the size of the pack - referred to as shrinkflation, a phenomenon I’ve featured many times on Consumerwatch  - are both on the rise in the food industry internationally, in the quest to make products “more affordable”.

The food industry argues that they are simply meeting consumer demand for lower prices, and yes, that’s a valid point, but regardless of legislative requirements, companies have a moral obligation to be as transparent as possible about what’s in their products.

That said, companies are never going to put statements such as “Now in a smaller pack” or “Only 36% beef!” in bold letters so that consumers can’t miss them. It’s just not going to happen.
So the only way for consumers to make informed choices is to get into the habit of scrutinising labels.

And as with contracts, the smaller the print, the more important it is for you to read it.

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Image: Supplied
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