When Sarah Erasmus graduates on 14 March 2017 with a doctorate in Food Science in hand, she'll do so with the knowledge that her findings provided a scientific basis for widely-held claims that there is something special and quite unique about lamb meat from the Karoo region. Her findings helped to ensure that Karoo lamb received exclusive geographic "naming rights" last year in terms of European Union marketing legislation.
Erasmus started her postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University in 2013 at a time when no legal protection was yet provided to local South African products such as Karoo lamb, rooibos and honeybush being marketed overseas.
She completed her postgraduate research under supervision of Prof Louw Hoffman, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Meat Science: Genomics to Nutriomics in the Department of Animal Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), and food sensory expert Ms Nina Muller of the SU Department of Food Science.
"To many South Africans it is common knowledge that Karoo lamb has a unique taste because of the fragrant Karoo bushes the animal eats, but reliable evidence was needed to give substance to these claims," explains Erasmus, who hails from Villiersdorp and matriculated from Worcester Gymnasium.
Erasmus used different analytical methods, such as isotopes, and completed a descriptive sensory analysis. Some of her findings have already been published in journals such as Food Chemistry and Small Ruminant Research.
Through her sensory analysis, Erasmus confirmed Karoo lamb's unique sensory qualities, and also that it differs from lamb meat from other regions in South Africa. It was proven that it has a more prominent and favourable lamb-like and herbaceous taste compared with lamb from for instance the Free State and Rûens, where the animals generally feed on grass and lucerne and/or winter grain stubble, respectively.
"The sensory differences that were picked up were more prominent in the fat, which suggests that fat plays an important role in the overall taste of Karoo lamb," says Erasmus.
She did part of her research at RIKILT, a research institute of Wageningen University and Research (UR) in the Netherlands. There she used a state-of-the-art method known as proton transfer-reaction mass spectrometry under guidance of food authenticity expert Prof Saskia van Ruth.
"Unique chemical fingerprints are produced using this method and are used to determine the origin of food, or in this case meat," explains Erasmus, who presented her findings about how to authenticate Karoo lamb at a postgraduate symposium on food fraud at Wageningen UR in 2016.
Volatile compounds detected in Karoo plants were also picked up in the lamb meat and fat. These results verified the link between diet and meat, and showed that Karoo lamb is a product unique to its region of origin.
According to Prof Hoffman, Erasmus's meat science work is an example of how research can provide real benefits to farmers and producers in the South African meat industry.
Karoo lamb's geographic indication status
Erasmus' reliable scientific findings about among others the unique sensory and regionally specific qualities of Karoo lamb formed part of an application to the European Union to grant it its own unique geographic indication status. It was granted in October 2016 in terms of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the Southern African Development Community (SADC) EPA Group and the European Union (EU). Its Geographical Indications (GI) status now provides Karoo lamb with international marketing protection and gives it its so-called "naming rights".
To get to this point Karoo lamb first had to be certified in terms of South African legislation. For this to be done, local abattoirs in the Karoo had to implement an impeccable traceability process about the origin of the meat they handled.
What is so special about Geographical Indications status?
Geographical Indications (GI) recognise that a particular name, which is usually derived from some place name, is for the exclusive use of products that come from that area. Well-known international examples are among others Parma ham, French champagne, Mexican tequila and Port.
Having its own unique geographic indicator status therefore makes Karoo lamb competitive on a global level and adds further value to the product associated with the name.