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Horsemeat: How can science help safety agencies?

Author : Chris Shaw

25 January 2013

Following the discovery of horse DNA in burgers on sale in Britain, a food safety specialist has warned that dubious practices in the meat processing industry are ‘far from a new phenomenon’.

A two year investigation in 1980-81 resulted in the discovery of kangaroo, donkey and buffalo meat being sold as beef in burgers, which led to the staining of unfit meat. And food purity Acts were passed in the US as far back as 1906 following allegations about the meat industry in Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle. Even further back, there is some speculation that the men of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to the Arctic died as a result of botulism in their canned food.

A spokesperson from R-Biopharm Rhône stated: “The surprise is that people are surprised. The risk of adulteration of food either by unscrupulous traders or lackadaisical processors is something to which standards agencies - not just in the UK but around the world - must stay continually alert. What’s new in the horse burger story is the increasingly sophisticated methods that scientists are bringing to bear in the ways they can pinpoint and track down infinitesimally small particles in samples of food. While the ability to analyse and identify different types of meat is not new, the methods which revealed the DNA in the Irish burgers have only really been perfected over the past 30 years.”

Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, was developed by Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis as a biochemical technology to amplify a single piece of DNA to generate millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence. The importance of the DNA is that, generally, it remains until the end of the food production chain, surviving the heat and the chemical elements within that process.

Within the meat production process in the slaughterhouse, from minced meat and processed meat up to meat containing feed, the species identification of minced and processed meat might not always be clear.

“This poses a risk of product falsification meaning that meat from a species of lower value might be declared as meat from animals of higher value,” added the spokesperson. ”This risk is higher in meat mixtures, for instance ground beef and its products. Using realtime PCR, different animal species can be identified. It also enables a highly specific identification of the animal species in the presence of meat from other species.” 

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