Scotch Beef is a world-leading brand and the industry invests considerable time and money ensuring the end product is of the highest quality. Unfortunately, this also makes it an attractive target for unscrupulous traders looking to pass off sub-standard imports as the genuine article. In a bid to combat ‘food fraud’, the commercial use of new forensic technology is being rolled out in Scotland where beef samples can now be tested to authenticate the country of origin.
Andy McGowan, Head of Industry Development, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) commented: “The forensic tests were developed to identify the “unique fingerprint” of where meat is produced and can confirm to Scotch Beef consumers that the meat of their choice is genuine. The technology also protects and supports the Scotch Beef producers behind the brand.”
The test has emerged from several research projects which have contributed to an effective system of testing that produces a high degree of accuracy when used on meat with no other distinguishing features. Viewers watching the first programme in the new BBC2 series of ‘Landward (shown on 30 September, 7pm), will see Andy McGowan taking beef samples and discussing the implications of isotope testing with presenter, Dougie Vipond.
Mr McGowan continued: “The isotope technology is already used for verifying the origin of mineral waters and is essentially a laboratory analysis of trace element information extracted from samples enabling the authenticity of the meat to be tested.”
Each sample is tested for levels of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, oxygen, and strontium isotopes. When the results are layered on top of each other, the outcome is a unique “fingerprint” of the place where the animal spent the last few months of its life.
In the west of the UK, hydrogen isotope levels are high and decline steadily towards the east and into continental Europe. Evaporation, condensation and rainfall also have an impact on hydrogen levels and provide points of difference between wetter Scotland and the dryer parts of England. The oxygen isotope is similarly affected.
Mr McGowan explained that carbon and nitrogen levels indicate the diet the animal has been eating rather than directly identifying the location. He continued: “The carbon found in plants growing on Scottish pastures differs to those found in warmer areas, such as Brazil, where animals consume predominantly C+ plants such as maize, and this can prove useful for highlighting the differences between products imported from South America or the USA. However, given the international trade in feed ingredients, carbon and nitrogen results alone would not be enough to identify where the meat was from.”
Sulphate contained within sea spray affects the sulphur isotopic ratios which can indicate if an animal has lived near the sea. Volcanism in rock also changes the concentrations of sulphur. Strontium ratios are affected by radiogenic decay which occurs at very different rates depending on the type of underlying rock.
Mr McGowan said that trial results had given a very high level of accuracy in blind testing and that interestingly, when tested on pork, results were unaffected by the brine used in curing bacon or by cooking.
Further research is being carried out to ensure that test results are not affected by sauces or cross-contamination where meats of multiple origins have been cooked on the same surface.
Mr McGowan concluded: “This technology enables us to guarantee the country of origin, which gives confidence to consumers choosing to buy Scotch Beef as well as supporting and protecting the producers and processors.
“The brand indicates meat produced in accordance with six assurance schemes which make Scotch Beef the brand of choice for many consumers.”