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Research studies explore meat mislabeling in consumer commercial products

9 September 2015

Two separate studies performed by the Chapman University Food Science Program in the United States of America have thrown further doubt on the provenance of meat products in the US and by extension the security of the supply chain. 

The studies focused on meat mislabelling in consumer products, with one study focusing on identification of the species used in ground meat products, and the other focusing on game meat species (exotic meats, animals and birds). The two investigations examined products in the U.S. commercial market; and both identified species mislabelling showing that consumers cannot entirely trust the packaging of food products. Investigating the identification of species in ground meat products, 48 samples were analysed and 10 were found to be mislabelled, nearly 20% showing incorrect information. Of the 10, nine were found to have additional species and one was mislabelled in its entirety with horsemeat, a recent scare in the Europe, being detected in two of the samples. 

The second study, focusing on game meat species labelling, used a total of 54 game meat products for which the results showed 10 products to be potentially mislabelled. Two products labelled as bison and one labelled as yak were identified as domestic cattle, a product labelled as black bear was identified as American beaver, and a product labelled as pheasant was identified as helmeted guineafowl. 

The studies identify instances of mislabelling using DNA barcoding and real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The resulting DNA sequences could be identified by comparison with top species matches in the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD) and GenBank to provide a good degree of reliability to the results. This all highlights further the global nature of food fraud as although Europe has had scares recently the global community did not take this as a trigger to implement their own preventative methods. Studies conducted in South Africa found that 68.3–69.2% of meat products tested were mislabelled (Cawthorn et al., 2013 and D'Amato et al., 2013), a study conducted in Turkey found that 22.0% of meat products tested were mislabelled, including products labelled as beef identified as poultry, deer and horse (Ayaz et al., 2006). 

"Although extensive meat species testing has been carried out in Europe in light of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, there has been limited research carried out on this topic in the United States," said Rosalee Hellberg, Ph.D., assistant professor at Chapman University and co-author on both studies. Overall, mislabelling was found to be most common in products purchased from online specialty meat distributors (versus supermarkets),meat samples ordered from online specialty meat distributors had a higher rate of being mislabelled (35%) compared to samples purchased from a local butcher (18%) and samples purchased at local supermarkets (5.8%). Supermarkets having more rigorous checks are better able to control their supply lines. Mislabelling does not always originate from a nefarious motive, as sometimes the cause could be cross-contamination at the processing facility or unintentional mislabelling when several species are ground or prepared on the same equipment without proper cleaning. 

Find out how RSSL’s DNA and Protein Laboratory can identify meat species including chicken, pork and beef in food products.

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