The mystery meat behind your hot dog

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Worried about the mane ingredient in your sausage?

A research team at University of Guelph pulled back the casing to find that products labelled as purely one meat — beef, pork, chicken or turkey — often contained other ingredients, including horse.

Associate Prof. Robert Hanner, of Guelph’s integrative biology department, said they’ve developed DNA-based methods to identify species — technology that’s been used in the past to expose global-level fraud in the seafood industry.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in the wake of Europe’s horse meat scandal of 2013, wanted to know if the university’s researchers could do similar work for mixed meat, he said.

A deeper dive into grocery store sausage found that 20% of the samples — all labelled as containing one type of meat — actually were a mix.

Some “all-beef” sausages included pork, turkey sausages were made out of less-expensive ground chicken, and one pork sausage was mixed with horse meat.

Researchers didn’t look at other types of meat, but it’s possible that bison, lamb or other species might have made their way into the sausages, Hanner said.

“Our labelling laws require you to put what’s in the product on the label,” said Hanner. “For me, this just points to some gaps in our traceability system that some of this off-label meat is getting through.”

In a time of global supply chains, it’s even more important to be able to track down where this cross-species contamination might be happening, he said.

A consumer might have an allergy to one type of meat, and there are Kosher and Halal considerations.

“If this is happening farther up the supply chain, where some of their suppliers aren’t declaring what’s in there, could it be because some of this meat is unfit for human consumption?” Hanner said. “And that’s where I kind of worry — why isn’t it on the label?”

For instance, Brazil is in the midst of a food processing scandal where it’s alleged companies paid off inspectors to allow the use rotting meat.

Hanner said DNA technology offers an opportunity for Canada to become a world leader in offering safe and reliable food.

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said processed meat and seafood are the most likely candidates for food fraud.

“With fish and seafood, there’s a huge mess there. It’s probably the worst category,” Charlebois said. “We did a study a few months ago and fish and seafood is by far the most problematic food category when it comes to food fraud because there are so many species, so much confusion.”

In Canada, 25% to 75% of fish could be mislabelled, he said.

As for sausages, Charlebois said he’s surprised the amount of unidentified meat was so low — in some parts of Europe, upwards of 50% of sausages contain mystery meat.

That doesn’t mean this is nothing to worry about though, he noted.

“Particularly for those who make dietary decisions based on faith. If you actually are buying a sausage with pork in it, and you’re from the Jewish faith or you’re a Muslim, that’s quite problematic. It doesn’t matter if it’s 25% or 100% — you’re misleading the public and therefore it’s fraud.”

Other common forms of food fraud are products that are labelled organic or local, Charlebois said.

Two high-profile Ontario cases involved grown-in-Mexico “local” tomatoes and falsely-labelled Kosher cheese.

Within 10-20 years, consumers should be able to access affordable devices either in their homes or at their local stores that can confirm the contents, Charlebois predicted.

Food regulators in Canada are also growing increasingly confident about pursuing bad apples, he said.

“As you see more and more fines, industry will actually clean up its act.”

From The Food Safety Files

•  Mystery Meat: One in five sausages examined by a University of Guelph research team contained a type of meat not listed on the label, according to results released last week.

• Toxic Eggs: Discount supermarket chain Aldi pulled all eggs from its German stores this past week over growing concerns in Europe that they were contaminated with an insecticide used to kill mites.

• Equine Dining: A horse meat scandal consumed Europe in 2013 after it was discovered that products labelled as containing beef were actually made partly or all from horse meat.

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