News in the last week has been saturated with reports from the UK on the discovery of horse meat in products labeled as beef. Sold through a complex series of wholesalers and middlemen, the meat ended up in frozen dinners and meat products.
Now, concern has spread across Europe about sources of meat and the products that contain it. According to a report out of Berlin, “DNA tests have revealed that beef tainted with horse meat has made it into supermarkets in 13 European Union nations. Store, schools, and hospitals are scrambling to remove some meat. And there are calls for tighter regulation of Europe’s complex food chain.” 1
While the precise origin of the alleged fraud is under investigation, the scandal spotlights the potential for the food supply to be contaminated with unexpected or unwanted substances.
London Reporters Clare Hutchison and Alice Baghdijian quoted David Black, a Consumer Intelligence spokesman as declaring, “(Brands) will have to put in place really stringent ways of checking what’s being delivered and what’s on the label is indeed what’s in there.”2
How can this be done? Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a method of DNA testing in which a strand of DNA is amplified and replicated through a series of temperature cycles. PCR requires the use of a temperature stable DNA polymerase that replicates DNA through an enzymatic process that also requires DNA primers, deoxynucleoside triphosphates, and a suitable buffer solution. Gel electrophoresis is then used to determine whether the DNA strands match those of known size.
“DNA tests can determine what kind of animal meat is in your sandwich or frozen dinner,” states a report from DW, a German broadcaster. “The technology for it is already present in many laboratories.”3
In addition to identifying the DNA of food such as meat, milk, cheese, and yogurt, the PCR process is also used in the criminal justice system and paternity suits. Food testing using PCR technology is considered more accurate and faster than some other methods including traditional microbiological culture methods.