The Institute of Food Research has teamed up with Oxford Instruments to develop improved ways of testing meat in the food chain.
The horsemeat scandal, and the recently published report from the National Audit Office, have shown that among other things there is a need to improve, increase and expand current authenticity testing regimes. New approaches for carrying out such tests are being developed at the IFR that use molecular spectroscopic techniques, principally nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), to analyse the fatty acid composition of food samples.
Pulsar benchtop NMR machine
The fatty acid profiles of meat from different animals are readily distinguishable using NMR, but until recently the equipment to carry out these tests has been too expensive and technically complicated to allow deployment in industrial settings. Earlier this year, Oxford Instruments launched a new benchtop NMR instrument, Pulsar™, which makes NMR spectroscopy available for routine testing. In parallel, IFR is developing the analysis software to provide new weapons in the battle against food fraud.
The methods being developed will be rapid and low cost. Dozens of samples could be analysed per day, taking 10 – 15 minutes per test, at a typical cost of less than £20 per sample. This makes the system ideal and affordable for high-throughput screening, or for pre-screening ahead of more time-consuming and expensive DNA testing.
The aim is to keep the techniques affordable for local authority funded as well as privately owned analyst laboratories, and potentially also to suppliers further up the food chain – i.e., beyond farm gate testing – one of the key recommendations from the NAO report.
At the moment, the research has reached a point where we are able to differentiate between whole cuts or chunks of beef, lamb, pork and horse. Further development work will be carried out over the coming months, to extend the methodology to the detection of small amounts of minced meat in the presence of another, mimicking many of the adulteration events that came to light earlier this year.