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New research to improve food recalls

Genome Alberta has found an approach that could mean recalls will be more targetted, less product will be wasted and consumers will be safe


Calgary, Alta. – Genome Alberta’s latest research has uncovered a way to improve food safety recalls for the beef industry.

Genome Alberta says the technology it used in its research can mean more targetted food recalls and the industry needing to recall less meat, saving it money without jeopardizing consumer safety.

Number of cattle per batch

The researchers say their aim was to improve food safety recalls but first they needed a statistical method for estimating the number of cattle that make up one ground beef batch.

Using different known methods, previous research put the number of cattle making up one ground beef batch at 300 to 500.

But in some beef recalls, there are several different sources and also a large amount of product can be involved. “There’s a lot of heterogeneity, particularly in terms of what we call the capture probability,” says Dr. Graham Plastow, CEO of Livestock Gentec at the University of Alberta.

In ecology, capture probability refers to the likelihood of an animal being captured. In a packing plant, it would refer to the likelihood of an individual animal being detected in a batch of ground beef.

The scientists took 10 samples from each ground beef batch. They then extracted about 100 muscle fibres from each sample, and mined the DNA from each muscle fibre.

By cross-referencing the DNA, they figured out how many muscle fibers came from different individuals. Using these numbers, researchers estimated the number of individuals in six batches. Their estimates ranged from a low of 411 individuals in one batch, to over 1000 in others, a significant increase from previous estimates.

Target recalls

The researchers say the DNA sampling methods aren’t only applicable to the research community. Eventually the food industry should be able to use the results to improve food safety recalls.

“The idea is that if there is a problem, we could use this technology to narrow down the window where the contamination has occurred,” says Plastow.

Not only can the beef industry use the information to have more targetted recalls, but it can also make traceability programs more specific with DNA technology, something that is already being done in Japan.

Avoid imitation

For example, Kurobuta pork is a high-end product in Japan, but grocery store shelves were flooded with cheaper imitation meats. Plastow worked with the Japanese industry to develop DNA testing procedures, effectively ending false Kurobuta marketing.

Canada’s beef industry could do the same to assure shoppers that they are buying Canadian beef, which is something that market research shows consumers are willing to pay more for.

The research is still in its early stages, and more work is needed before the DNA sampling methods can be rolled out commercially. Researchers still need to model how contamination spreads through plants. They hope to find a simpler way to micro-dissect the muscle fibres. New DNA technology could allow researchers to develop a batch-specific fingerprint in the plant.