Former Minister of Small Business Chalane Phori appears to have been in cahoots with the owners of a local butchery who allegedly resold 2.3-tonnes of kangaroo meat disguised as beef to unsuspecting customers last year.
The sale of the meat was also in contravention of a directive from the suppliers that it should be removed from retail shelves and disposed of.
Phori has attempted to position himself and his former ministry as a white knight in the saga. However, an investigation by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism tells a different story: that Phori is uncomfortably close to the key players in the saga and in order to cover his tracks he sought to actively put decoys in place to create the impression that, firstly his ministry acted in the best interests of the people by ensuring that the kangaroo meat was fully disposed of, and secondly, that he and his ministry were innocent parties.
In March 2020, the local papers reported that Econo Foods Lesotho unknowingly brought five tonnes of kangaroo meat into the country from South Africa. They had sold 3.2-tonnes of this, mislabelled as “beef”, before the deception was discovered by Econo Foods following a customer complaint.
According to news reports at the time, and more recently in Africa-Press.net in August this year, Econo Foods said it had been duped.
The food supply company said it had bought 14-tonnes of “beef” from a Cape Town-based supplier, called Laviande Foods, but had discovered it contained kangaroo meat after a customer complained. Following the complaint, Econo Foods commissioned a Bloemfontein-based laboratory, SMT Laboratory, to conduct tests on the meat. Their report, issued on 27 January 2020, confirmed that the stock was positive for kangaroo. It also contained beef, but the report did not indicate the content ratios.
Econo Foods then directed its Lesotho counterparts to remove the product from the market and instructed Laviande to collect it for immediate disposal.
A band of merry men, women and their butchery
MNN has now established that only 10-kilograms of the 2.3-tonnes was disposed of, while a chain of questionably motivated individuals looped the rest back into the market and into the shopping bags of unsuspecting buyers.
The key players in the saga were local businessman Stefan Engelbregcht, the CEO of Meraka Lesotho Abattoirs Mosito Khethisa, and Tobias B. Lombard who Laviande contracted to collect and dispose of the meat. The remaining two players were Phori and Xiaoyi Yao, wife of Yan Xie, more notoriously known as “John”.
“John” is a highly controversial and politically-connected local Chinese businessman who has featured in multiple tender corruption cases in Lesotho. When “John” was appointed by former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane as his Special Envoy and Trade Adviser on the China-Asia trade network in 2017, he told MNN that he had transferred some of his company holdings to his wife, Xiaoyi Yao, “because she’s also a businessperson.”
Former Minister Phori is deeply entwined with “John”. Two years ago, the two men jointly bid for a controversial M340-million Mpilo Boulevard tender. This was ultimately disqualified, but demonstrates that the two do business together.
Passing the Kangaroo: sequence of events
MNN investigations show that on 23 December 2019, Laviande Foods delivered “6.581-tonnes of beef trimmings” to Econo’s Bloemfontein office.
Econo Foods Chief Operating Officer, Graham Botha, told MNN that the following day 5.5-tonnes were dispatched to its Lesotho subsidiary. In mid-January 2020, a customer complaint led to them commissioning SMT laboratories to test the meat, which was proven to contain kangaroo.
On 5 February 2020, an email exchange took place between the local Econo Butchery Manager, Casper Rego, and Lombard.
This correspondence, which MNN has seen, shows that at the eleventh hour, a “local buyer” [Stefan Engelbregcht] emerged for the meat. This apparently eliminated the need to return it to South Africa, but Econo Foods’s understanding at this stage remained that it would be disposed of, per their directive.
On 12 February 2020, Engelbregcht collected the 2,361-tonnes of remaining meat from Econo Lesotho using a Meraka Lesotho Abattoir’s truck. Meraka is Lesotho’s biggest abattoir.
Econo COO, Botha, told MNN that Engelbregcht introduced himself as a representative of Meraka Lesotho Abattoir.
When MNN approached Meraka CEO Khethisa he initially told us that he was unaware that Engelbregcht had used Meraka’s truck, pointing out that they sometimes “borrowed” each other’s vehicles.
MNN has since established that Khethisa and Engelbregcht were in fact business owners – in a butchery called Basotho Meat Enterprise, where MNN understands Engelbregcht delivered the kangaroo meat for resale after collecting it, rather than disposing of it. The third owner of the butchery was “John’s wife”, Xiaoyi Yao. The butchery has since shut down.
MNN has also established that Meraka Abattoir is jointly owned by Xiaoyi Yao, John’s brothers-in-law: Shen Yao and Hou Yao, five more others and is managed by Khethisa.
According to Phori, on 16 March 2020, the Ministry of Small Business, under his instruction, raided Econo Foods’s stores. Kenny Soares, Econo Foods Managing Director, told MNN that the raid was planned but never happened. He said at that time all the kangaroo meat had been removed from his store shelves, and to his knowledge, disposed of.
Yet, Minister Phori, following the alleged raid, called a press conference where he sat before journalists with a 10-kilogram slab of kangaroo, claiming this was just a “sample” of what had been found during the raid.
After lauding the success of the raid, he said he would hand the full consignment of kangaroo over to the Maseru City Council for disposal.
Maseru City Council spokesperson, Makatleho Mosala, told MNN that the quantity of meat that they ultimately disposed of under the Small Business Ministry directive was only about 10-kilograms, in all likelihood the same “sample” that Phori had at the press conference.
By this time, it is also highly likely that most of the 2.3-tonnes of “missing kangaroo” had already been resold and Phori’s raid and the press conference was simply a decoy to cover the tracks of his business partners.
Soares believes that the 10-kilogram sample came from Engelbrecht as part of the decoy plan.
When MNN confronted Phori he said: “Where else could I have gotten the meat? It was collected by the ministry’s officials from the shop that sold it [Econo Foods]”.
Two former officials from the Ministry of Small Business, former Principal Secretary Lerata Pekane and Public Relations Officer, Makalang Mokere, said they did not know who brought the meat to the ministry as they first saw it in Phori’s office.
Lombard, the broker between Econo Foods, Laviande and Engelbregcht, downplayed the situation to MNN. He claimed to know nothing about the kangaroo meat. He avoided MNN’s questions, consistently diverting the story to his pet kangaroo named ‘Skippy’, sending, rather ludicrously, pictures of himself and Skippy seated side-by-side on the couch.
Meat traders interviewed by MNN who had bought products from Basotho Meat Enterprise at the time that Engelbregcht had collected the kangaroo from Econo Foods, confirmed that they were suspicious about its origin.
Maliemiso Rasunyane, owner of R and T Meat Market, said after buying the meat she noticed something sinister about its colour, that its stew was very red, which is abnormal for beef.
She bought the meat frozen and when it defrosted it blackened, so much so that she could not display it for sale.
“When I bought the meat, it was frozen. By the time it defrosted it turned its colour to black. This got me confused. It was more like the meat of an animal that killed itself.”
Phori, speaking to MNN before we became aware of his apparent central role in the saga, said he believed the meat came from kangaroos that were killed by the 2019 Australian bushfires. “My reliable sources told me that the meat was of kangaroos that died from the Australia bush fire,” he told MNN. We could not verify this.
Later, when MNN attempted to put questions to Phori about his apparent central role in the saga he said he no longer wanted to talk about the kangaroo meat issue as he wants no trouble.
Does Econo Foods Care?
What is perhaps most concerning is Econo Foods’s attitude where self-preservation seems to supersede their duty of care to their customers.
Even if it is true that they initially did not know that they were buying kangaroo meat, it appears that they subsequently turned a blind eye when the meat was looped back into the market and sold. Their attitude seems to be “out of sight, out of mind”.
Botha told MNN: “Lombard is the one who was initially contracted to collect the meat from our shop. He then made arrangements with Stefan to collect it on his behalf from our Lesotho and Bloemfontein shops. We are not sure where the meat was taken to, our concern was to see it out of our premises, therefore we handed the whole case to the ministry of small business. There were allegations that the meat was sold locally but we never investigated the matter further to verify the allegations.”
The mysterious case of Laviande Foods
Laviande Foods was registered six weeks (7 November 2019) before supplying Econo Foods with its mysterious consignment of “beef”, raising questions about the company’s track record and compliance with food standards.
Botha claims that after the saga, Laviande Foods disappeared. He said that their contact person, someone called Heinrich, ignored his calls and texts. As a result, he says, no action was taken.
“Further regarding action taken, I myself then started calling around to find out more about this business and its owners. The number we had as a contact was not answering any of my WhatsApp messages nor several phone calls,” he said. “After a couple of days, the number could not be reached at all anymore, nor were the messages going through. One of the shareholders then went to the address on the invoice but to no avail.”
On 29 January 2020, a “non-conformance report” was compiled by Anton McPherson from Econo Foods stating that Laviande did not comply with the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act of 1972, the regulation relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs. The report also noted that Laviande had not declared the contents of its product, as per the Food Safety Management Program and did not supply Econo Foods with a Certificate of Acceptability as per Food Safety Standards.
To cover Econo’s back, a letter at the time from Jonny Coetzee, Managing Director of JD Food Safety, which handles Econo’s food safety, stated: “As per the SA regulation R962 replaced by R638, it’s not required to request a Certificate of [Acceptability] (COA) or Certificate of Conformity (COC) from our suppliers.”
Coetzee told MNN that kangaroo meat importation for human consumption in South Africa was allowed.
The long-suffering consumer: authorities refuse to take responsibility
Meanwhile, authorities in Lesotho responsible for holding Econo Foods and its supplier, Laviande accountable have not taken any legal action on the matter.
This is perhaps unsurprising given the suggestions that Phori was involved. In fact, at the time and following the “raid”, his ministry said the whole matter was a mistake and that the suppliers were “forgiven”.
“We understand that mistakes happened and we have accepted their [Econo Foods] apology,” said Lerata Pekane, Phori’s then Principal Secretary who handled the case.
Director General of Veterinary Services, Dr Gerard Relebohile Mahloane, whose office is responsible for enforcing legal importation of meat products, told MNN that he heard about the kangaroo meat saga from the media reports, but never investigated the matter further.
Mahloane said South African veterinarians that endorsed Econo Foods’s veterinary import certificate are also to blame and can be reported to South African Veterinary Services and World Trade Organisation.
Ministry of Health Food Safety Programme Manager Motsamai Mahahabisa said because of a lack of appropriate resources, the country does not do any tests on meat entering the country but relies on documentation from South African veterinarians.
Mahahabisa said because Lesotho is a member of the CODEX Alimentarius Commission, an international food standard commission, it trusts certification by South African health experts that endorse the safety and origin of meat imported in the country.