Scientists Step Up Food Fraud Efforts Following Horse Meat Scandal
Last year, the great European horse meat scandal alerted consumers around the world to food fraud. Traces of horse meat were found in Ikea meatballs and Burger King beef patties, in cottage pies sold at schools in Lancashire, England, and in frozen lasagna sold all over Europe. Arrests were made in the U.K. and in France.
The contamination didn’t pose any real public health threat — horse has the same amount of protein as beef, and less fat. But in the U.K., where horses are viewed as pets rather than food, people weren’t happy to learn they had been eating horse unawares. And as we reported, in France, where eating horse is more common, customers were angry that they had been paying beef prices for cheaper horse meat.
"Consumers felt cheated and lost trust. It was just a total loss of confidence in the supply chain," says Markus Lipp of U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, a nonprofit that sets food and medicine safety standards. “It raised questions: Were these racehorses? Were they treated with veterinary medicines that were bad for human consumption?”
As a result of the scandal, European governments started rethinking their food regulation practices. And scientists started kicking into high gear, looking for ways to improve the technology to quickly test batches of meat for contaminants. Just this month, a paper in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry details a new method that uses mass spectrometry to quickly detect even tiny traces of pork and horse mixed into raw and cooked beef products.
The new technology looks promising, Lipp says. “But there is no way [food regulators] can test 100 percent of the food. We can never test ourselves to safety.”
Photo: The French enjoy horse meat — here’s a horse meat butcher in Paris. But even the French were angry that they had been paying beef prices for it last year. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)