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Fraudulent Food Labeling: It’s Not Just the Fish.

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 4, 2013

Snacking on mountain zebra?

Snacking on mountain zebra?

It’s amazing, and sometimes dismaying, what you can find out with DNA.  We all know that the fish being sold by most retailers and restaurants may not be as labeled:  They price it as red snapper, but it’s really just tilapia.

Now it turns out the same thing may be happening with at least one form of red meat.

When I travel in southern Africa, I routinely pick up a bag of biltong, dried wild meat, to snack on as I drive.  It’s usually labeled wildebeest, kudu, or even giraffe.  But now it turns out it may be something entirely different, even including an endangered species.  Here’s the report:

Want to know what you are eating? DNA barcodes can be used to identify even very closely related species, finds an article published in BioMed Central’s open access journal Investigative Genetics. Results from the study show that the labelling of game meat in South Africa is very poor with different species being substituted almost 80% of the time.

In South Africa game meat biltong (air dried strips) is big business with over 10,000 wildlife farms and is supplemented by private hunting. This meat is considered to be ‘healthier’ than beef because it is lower in fat and cholesterol and perceived to be lower in additives.

Using mitochondrial COI DNA barcoding and cytb sequencing, researchers analysed samples of game meat from supermarkets, wholesalers and other outlets and compared them to known samples and library sequences. From 146 samples over 100 were mislabelled.

All the beef samples were correct, but for the most badly labelled case 92% of kudu was a different species. Only 24% of springbok and ostrich biltong was actually springbok or ostrich. The rest was horse, impala, hartebeest, wildebeest, waterbok, eland, gemsbok, duiker, giraffe, kangaroo, lamb, pork or beef. Worryingly one sample labelled zebra was actually mountain zebra, a ‘red listed’ species threatened with extinction.

Maria Eugenia D’Amato from the University of the Western Cape commented, “The delivery of unidentifiable animal carcasses to market and the general lack of regulations increases the chances of species mislabelling and fraud. This has implications for species safety but also has cultural and religious implications. This technique is also able to provide new information about the identity of animals and meant that we found several animals whose DNA had been misidentified in the scientific libraries.”

Maria E D’Amato, Evguenia Alechine, Kevin W Cloete, Sean Davison and Daniel Corach. Where is the game? Wild meat products authentication in South Africa: a case study. Investigative Genetics, 2013; (in press) [link]

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