Norwich scientists at the Institute of Food Research develop new test for horse meat

Dr Kate Kemsley at the Institute of Food Research

Dr Kate Kemsley at the Institute of Food Research - Credit: Submitted

Scientists at the Norwich Research Park have helped devise a faster and more affordable way for food manufacturers and processors to detect horse meat in their products.

Last year's discovery of horse meat in supermarket beef burgers prompted a scandal which damaged consumer confidence and exposed the vulnerability of the UK supply chain to contamination.

It also highlighted gaps in the testing regime, where DNA analysis is often used to tell one meat from another based on the genetic makeup of the butchered animal – a lengthy and expensive process.

But now scientists at the Institute of Food Research (IFR) in Colney have teamed up with Oxford Instruments to develop a cheaper way of distinguishing horse meat from beef, using similar technology to a hospital MRI scanner.

Because horses and cattle have different digestive systems, the fat components of the two meats have different fatty acid compositions, as the team reports in the scientific journal Food Chemistry.

The search for a quick and cheap screening tool led to the development of 'Pulsar' technology, a high-resolution bench-top NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectrometer which does not rely on the super-cooled magnets and highly trained staff required by more conventional instruments.

The team discovered that a couple of minutes shaking about a gram of raw meat in a solvent followed by a few minutes of data acquisition on the machine was enough to tell horse meat from beef. Software to carry out mathematical analysis was also developed at the IFR.

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The method, developed with funding from Innovate UK and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has been trialled with an industrial meat processor and is already available commercially. The project is currently being extended by the scientists to test for other meat species, including pork and lamb.

The IFR team is led by Dr Kate Kemsley, head of the Analytical Sciences Unit, who said: 'It's a stroke of luck really that some of the most important meats turn out to have fat signatures that we can tell apart so easily with this method.

'It's been very satisfying to see results from a real industrial setting sit right on top of those we generated in our two labs. We think this testing method should work well at key points in the supply chain, say at meat wholesalers and processors.'

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