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New Techniques Can Detect Fraudsters Mixing Horse into Other Meat

28 September 2016

UK - Shoppers can be more confident that their burgers are the real deal following a new method of testing for meat fraud developed at the Institute of Food Research on the Norwich Research Park.

Exploiting subtle differences in a key meat protein, the addition of just 1 per cent of horse into a beef burger or of beef into lamb mince is now easy to spot. Not only that, the technique gives an estimate of how much unlabelled meat is illegally concealed in the product.

The red colour of meat is due to a protein called myoglobin. But the myoglobin in beef, for example, differs from that of horse by 18 amino acids, the building blocks of all proteins. This means that if the beef and horse proteins are broken up in the same way, some of the matching fragments have different masses.

This is the basis of the new test. Protein extracted from a meat sample is chemically chopped into fragments, called peptides, using an enzyme. The peptide soup is fed into a mass spectrometer that is tuned to measure the masses of only a handful of selected peptides.

If a burger contains only beef then only beef peptides will appear. But if a little horse meat has been slipped in then some horse peptides will show up too. The relative hit rate of the horse and beef peptides give an estimate of how much horse has been added. The entire procedure takes around two hours.

The IFR work, led by Dr Kate Kemsley, appears in the September issue of the Journal of Visualized Experiments.

Though so far demonstrated using raw meat from just four species, the team have also shown that key marker peptides persist in supermarket products, including for lamb in ready-curry and for beef in canned corned beef. So the team is confident they can reveal meat adulteration in cooked retail products, of key interest to consumers and producers alike.

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