The scandal of contaminated meat, not just in the UK, but all over Europe, continues.
For historical and personal reasons some people fiercely oppose the consumption of horse meat, but from a physiological point of view, horse meat is just as edible as beef or lamb. However, the British public have the right to feel deceived, not just because horse meat was miss-sold as beef, but more importantly, because, as the origin of these animals is unknown, it could have dangerous levels of substances banned for human consumption.
This is why I welcomed the news that last week European Union governments approved an EU-wide DNA testing programme to check all beef products to identify the extent of contamination with horsemeat and potentially meat from other animals. In the UK, this will be conducted by the Association of Public Analysts (APA).
Sensibly, the tests will also identify the presence of potential harmful chemicals, such as phenylbutazone, which is illegal in meat for human consumption, but has widespread use in horses. This drug, which was originally developed to treat arthritis and gout during the 50s, has now been linked with cases of aplastic anaemia, a rare but dangerous bone marrow disorder involving the suppression of white blood cells. I also believe that further tests to steroids may be just around the corner, as some of the “offending” animals may have been retired racehorses with suspicious use of illegal drugs. Despite the gloomy picture presented by many articles, realistically the risks for human health are low, as this is a relatively recent problem, associated with only a few products.
The problem of food substitution
Unfortunately, “food substitution” is not uncommon in this industry. There have been examples of premium rice being bulked up with lower quality product; as well as cheap fillets of fish being sold as their more expensive counterparts. However, instead of dramatizing the situation, it’s possible to learn something from it. The solution to this problem is simple: an encompassing DNA database, including commonly used species, applied to both animals and plants. Once this is created, food products can be tested and compared against the database to identify the specie(s) present. If this is carried out extensively, the temptation of food contamination would be virtually eliminated.
In theory, this could even go as far as identifying individual animals, effectively tracing its origins. A few years ago, an Israeli company, Autentica, developed a “genetic fingerprint” for each animal using small variations in their genome (called single nucleotide polymorphisms, SNPs). The company is confident that they can find a specific animal from a population of thousands. Neatly, they have developed a mobile app allowing consumers to read the bar code in the packaged meat and receive information about that particular animal. Clever, eh?
Accurate testing is not as difficult or expensive as you may think. Unfortunately, unless governments adopt a stricter policy with regards to DNA testing, companies will be reluctant to perform these assays, as it’ll increase the price. It is up to the consumers to “demand” such stringency and buy tested products.