Will DNA testing prevent another horsemeat scandal?

Experience from the fish industry shows how the technology to help solve the problem is available... and getting cheaper. But the meat industry and customers must decide whether it'll be used.

The scandal began last month in Ireland, with horsemeat disguised as expensive beef -- it has since swept across Europe. Food fraud isn’t new, and experience from the fish industry shows that genetic databases and DNA sequencing can close the breaks in our food chain.

The technology to help solve the problem is available and getting cheaper; whether it is used is in the hands of industry and consumers. New Scientist reports.

Last December, DC-conservation group Oceana published a report detailing seafood substitution in New York: of 142 samples from 81 retail outlets, 39 percent weren’t what they claimed to be. Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami had similar results.

To authenticate a sample at any point in the food chain, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a DNA database for about 250 commonly eaten species of fish. The ‘barcode of life’ project at the University of Guelph in Ontario has collected sequences for over 8,000 fish species.

It costs just a few dollars to sequence a fish-sample's ‘genomic barcode’ to identify its species. DNA databases could be developed for meat too.

Tests can trace where a piece of meat came from -- down to the individual animal. Given samples from every animal in a herd, Israeli company Autentica can create genetic barcodes for each one using a relatively cheap analysis of 25 DNA bits unique to each animal. The barcodes can then be used to track animals through the food chain.

There are also tests to look for proteins specific to beef, pork, poultry and lamb; these are relatively cheap (under $100), but can’t identify other animal sources. DNA analysis can do that, but costs over $700 per sample.

In the short term, the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency (FSA) will likely demand that meat suppliers do more DNA testing, but companies will be against that in the long term because that’ll raise the price of their product. For low-grade foods, experts say, this just won't happen.

[Via New Scientist]

Image by khawkins04 via Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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