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Point of View : Apr 15, 2008 ( )
Using DNA Traceability to Track Meat and Ensure Safety
Recent Beef Recalls and Proliferation of Labeling Claims Pave the Way
As the U.S. beef industry, grocery retailers, food-service operators, and average consumers struggle to cope with the fallout from the largest beef recall in history, government and food industry officials are talking about the need for more effective traceability, and consumers are demanding more information on where and how their meat is produced.
A quick turn through the meat department of a U.S. grocery store shows that consumers face an amazing array of product claims on meat products, including USDA organic, natural, kosher, humanely raised, free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free, U.S.-raised, and Angus. The recent proliferation of these claims has left consumers wondering what they really mean, which meat they should buy, and what products they can trust. Is there any foolproof way to know whether these labeling claims are true?
Current meat-tracking methods, which identify batches rather than the individual animal, can be imprecise. This can result in huge amounts of meat being recalled as part of a food-safety initiative. There were 20 meat recalls during 2007 in the U.S., all of them focusing on ground meat.
This year saw the giant, industry-jarring Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. recall involving 143 million pounds of ground beef as well as recalls of another 30+ million pounds of meat from grocery stores and restaurants due to suspected E. coli contamination. Ground meat represents a particular traceability challenge to the industry because one ground meat patty can contain meat from hundreds of animals, especially in a large plant like Hallmark/Westland.
Today’s shoppers and restaurant patrons are more focused than ever on the origins of the food they eat. A hint at their level of concern is evident in the results of a recent survey conducted by Corona Research of Denver.
Improving Labeling Claims
Labeling claims are currently proven or documented by U.S. beef and pork producers using external identifiers such as eartags and barcode labels to identify animals and meat derived from them. The USDA’s National Animal Identification System was established in 2003, originally as a way to track and locate livestock that are transported from state to state. Participation, however, is voluntary, and only about 27% of U.S. farms, feeders, and processors use the system.
Benefiting from Traceability
In a case like the Hallmark/Westland recall, this technology would enable the origins of a recalled product to be determined with forensic precision. With the exact sources identified, the scope of a recall could be better managed. DNA could have been used to test meat received by school lunch programs or restaurants against a DNA database to determine whether it came from Hallmark.
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