Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Faster" food creates a furore

The finding of horse meat at up to 30% of a "beef" burger in Ireland has created a furore this week, both in the mainstream and social media.

The Irish Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, has blamed a single meat processor and has further stated that the horse meat entered the product via an imported additive, though the nature or identity of the additive was not mentioned.

You can't tell by looking at a burger just what sort of meat is present, so some fairly sophisticated laboratory methods must be used.  Though not stated in the press articles I have read, the chances are that the burger was tested for specific DNA markers for horse meat.  Indeed, both horse and pig DNA were found in some burgers.

It appears that "traces" of pig DNA were also found in 85% of the burger products tested.  The fact that only traces were detected suggests to me that either a pig-derived additive was used in the manufacture of the burgers, or the beef was ground in equipment improperly cleaned after processing pork.  This latter suggestion is perhaps unlikely, as the traces were found in burgers supplied by a number of manufacturers.

In itself, the finding of traces of DNA from meat animals other than beef cattle should not be cause for alarm - no harm can come from consuming the burgers.  However, some religious and cultural sensibilities may be offended - if you are not allowed to eat pork for whatever reason, you should be able to purchase "beef" products with the expectation that they don't contain pork.  Of course, 30% horse meat in a beef burger is not a trace and the implication is that in this case there was a deliberate attempt to deceive the customer.

While I don't condone the addition of meats not appearing on the label, I wonder if this is another of those situations where the use of highly sensitive analytical techniques has raised a storm.  Something similar happened many years ago when milk was tested by a new, sensitive method for detecting dioxin.  In that case, the dioxin came from the chlorine-bleached paperboard used in manufacture of the milk cartons and was at extremely low levels in the milk. 

How many other foods that we take for granted contain minuscule traces of DNA, and, by implication, foreign plant or animal materials, which get there as a result of the use of natural additives?

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