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New technique can quickly detect impurities in ground beef

The system would help fight food fraud and ensure food safety

If you’re worried about just what your ground meat or sausage may contain, help may be on the way.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found a better way to identify unwanted animal products in ground beef.

Food science students led by professor Xiaonan Lu used a laser-equipped spectrometer and statistical analysis to determine with 99 per cent accuracy whether ground beef samples included other animal parts. They were able to say with 80 per cent accuracy which animal parts were used, and in what concentration.

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Their new method can accomplish all of this in less than five minutes, which makes it a potentially transformative food inspection tool for government and industry.

“By using this innovative technique, the detection of food fraud can be simpler, faster and easier,” said the study’s lead author Yaxi Hu, a PhD candidate in UBC’s faculty of land and food systems.

Food fraud is the intentional misrepresentation of food products for economic gain. When producers hold an excess supply of meat or byproducts for which there is relatively little market demand, the potential exists for unscrupulous operators to try to pass those products off as something else. In the past five years, high-profile scandals in the U.K., Ireland, and Russia have seen lamb, chicken and even rat meat substituted for higher-quality meat products.

DNA testing has proven efficient and accurate in identifying foreign species in meat products, but what DNA testing cannot do is identify offal mixed in with meat of the same species.

To establish their method, the UBC researchers aimed a spectrometer at meat samples they had prepared by grinding together beef and offal from local supermarkets at various concentrations. Because animal products all have different chemical compositions, their molecules absorb and scatter energy from the spectrometer’s laser in different ways. The spectrometer captures these signals — or spectra — to produce an “image” of each substance. These spectral images can serve as a library for comparison with other samples.

Whether a meat sample is authentic or adulterated with offal can be determined by comparing its spectral image with the pre-established library, to see if there’s a match.

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