New Test to Distinguish Horsemeat from Beef

By Margaret Evans

In 2013, a scandal broke out in Europe and the United Kingdom when horsemeat was discovered in a number of beef burger products. Very quickly, horsemeat was detected in a variety of other meat products, leading to the destruction of food worth millions of dollars after it was removed from supermarket shelves.

It wasn’t that the meat was necessarily a health risk when consumed, but that the marketing of the meat was fraudulent in that the contents of the package did not match what the product manufacturer claimed. In addition, the crisis exposed the vulnerability of the food supply chain, the potential for health hazards in the future, and the fact that there are serious gaps in the testing process.

Currently the most reliable method to test meat content is by DNA testing which identifies one animal’s genetics from another. But it is time consuming, expensive, and prone to contamination if not carefully handled.

Now, scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) at the Norwich Research Park, UK, have partnered with Oxford Instruments to develop a rapid alternative to DNA testing to distinguish horsemeat from beef or other products.

Horses and cattle have different digestive systems and therefore the fat components of each have different fatty acid compositions. The new method looks at the differences in the fat composition in the meat to identify the source. It is based on technology called the “Pulsar,” a high resolution bench-top, cryogen-free NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) analyzer developed by Oxford Instruments. NMR spectroscopy determines the magnetic properties of certain atomic nuclei. It is a valuable analytical technique but conventional instruments are large and expensive, and need highly trained personnel to run them. In contrast, the Pulsar is based on permanent magnets rather than super-cooled magnets, and is easy to operate.

Given that screening meat needs to be quick and inexpensive, the research team discovered that a couple of minutes of shaking about a gram of meat in a solvent, followed by a few minutes of data acquisition on Pulsar, was enough to tell horsemeat from beef. The software to carry out the mathematical analysis of the data was developed at IFR. Now, in just ten minutes, a technician can find out whether a piece of raw meat is horse or beef. 

The technique was developed with funding from Innovate UK and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and has been tested in an industrial setting by a leading meat processor. Tests are continuing to identify other meat species including pork and lamb. 

“It’s a stroke of luck that some of the most important meats turn out to have fat signatures that we can tell apart so easily with this method,” says Dr Kate Kemsley with IFR. “It’s been very satisfying to see results from a real industrial setting sit right on top of those we generated in our labs. We think this testing method should work well at key points in the supply chain, say at meat wholesalers and processors.” 

Photo: ©CanStockPhoto/Kirshelena