April 15, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 8)

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.

Consumer Concerns

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.

Among survey respondents, safety was a greater concern than all other factors except freshness. Even price was secondary to safety in terms of the consumer’s buying decisions with 67% citing safety as a major factor compared to 57% for price. Awareness of safety issues was high, as more than 70% had strong concerns about BSE, E. coli, and other contaminants.

When asked about their confidence level related to traceability of fresh meat, only 58% were confident that meat could be traced back to a specific group of cattle in a processing plant. Not surprisingly, 74% of them equated meat traceability with quality, believing that traceable beef was better. The same survey respondents overwhelmingly (91%) said they would pay more for traceable beef than for nontraceable beef. Nearly 67% said they would buy more beef at stores that offered guaranteed traceability.

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.

The BSE crisis erupted in Europe in 1996. In a matter of weeks, the European beef industry collapsed as consumers completely lost trust in beef products. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I were immediately struck by the relevance of the technique of DNA traceability.

We had been employing DNA identification technology during years spent researching the genetic characterization of cattle in India and Africa, work that had become known in the scientific community for (among other things) our discovery of a separate domestication for Bos indicus and Bos taurus. We were quite sure that aspects of DNA identification technology could be used to trace meat in a supermarket.

Ireland’s premier grocery retailers embraced DNA traceability, first as a security measure, then as a marketing tool to restore consumer confidence in the meat supply.

Using DNA to trace a grocer’s meat offerings back to the farm or processing batch of origin is straightforward and simple. With a large database of animal DNA, it’s an easy task to determine whether labeled beef is what it purports to be.

The process starts with a DNA sample taken from each animal carcass at the farm or packing plant. The sample is profiled with a panel of DNA markers (SNPs). These profiles are then stored in a computer database. The carcasses are then broken up and distributed to various retailers and food service outlets. At any step in the distribution process, a new sample can be taken from any product to confirm its origins or attributes.

The system tracks actual products rather than product labels. The DNA records themselves are tamper-proof, and the tracing process reduces the need for costly documents and barcodes.

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.

The overall result would be reduced financial losses for producers, food service operators, and grocery retailers as well as lessened fears among consumers worried that they might have purchased or eaten a tainted product.

Grocers in Ireland and the U.K. have embraced DNA traceability as a way of growing a relationship of trust with the consumer. U.S. meat producers and retailers, confronted by consumers’ demands for trustworthy proof of the origins of the foods they buy, should consider it too.

Patrick Cunningham, Ph.D., is professor of animal genetics at Trinity College Dublin and is the chief scientific adviser to the government of Ireland. He holds a Ph.D. in animal genetics from Cornell University and is cofounder and chairman of IdentiGEN and IdentiGEN North America, developers of DNA TraceBack® and an animal database for performing DNA traceability. E-mail: [email protected]. For the survey conducted by Corona Research, visit www.identigen.com.

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