As a species, we have largely categorized animals as Too Cute To Eat, Too Weird To Eat, or Meat. I do not understand these rules, because I think bugs, normally in the Too Weird category, and rabbit, normally in the Too Cute category, taste very good, while chickens (“Meat”) are terrifying salmonella dinosaurs. However, it is understandable to get mad when you are served a Too Cute meat when you thought you were getting Meat meat, or even if you’re served pork instead of beef. Heck, I would be mad if someone revealed that my stewed rabbit was actually stewed chicken all along.
Anyway, back in 2013, there were actually some pretty nightmarish meat problems after testing revealed horsemeat in some hamburgers, and lasagna meat that was as much as 90 percent equine. Meat ID tests exist that use DNA extraction and an amplification technique called PCR (polymerase chain reaction), but they might not be sensitive to cooked products after the DNA degrades under heat and processing. So, a team of European researchers came up with a new way to authenticate meat: a disposable test of its mitochondria, a part of the cell with its own special kind of DNA.
The authors write that “to our knowledge, no PCR-free biosensing strategy has been reported so far for horsemeat adulteration detection,” according to the paper published recently in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
The technique still isn’t something you can do at home—the method ultimately required lab equipment like a centrifuge, custom genetic material, chemicals to perform the analysis, and a sensing kit composed of special disposable electrodes.
Using their setup, the authors took a look at tiny meat samples as well as beef spiked with traces of horsemeat. They isolated the mitochondria by crushing the meat and centrifuging it using their extraction kit, and then got to work with their analysis.
Recognizing the horsemeat required creating a special tool, made from tiny molecular magnet carriers and a special horsemeat-recognizing RNA, genetic material similar to DNA that processes rather than stores information. This system could tag the horsemeat DNA and make it easier to separate out from the rest using the disposable electrodes. The researchers report that they could successfully detect horsemeat at concentrations as low as .5%.
This is just one new method that hasn’t been put to a real-world test yet, but the authors think they’ve created a “promising tool for the identification of species and meat traceability, a hotspot for food research worldwide, to be positioned even in locations where more complex laboratory equipment is not available, such as points of vulnerability along food supply networks,” according to the paper.
You’re probably wondering, I’m here in the United States, do I really need to worry about horse meat in my beef? The answer is, well, maybe. Analysis of the Trump budget suggests that one cost saving method could be selling wild horses for slaughter instead of protecting them, according to the Atlantic. Furthermore, they write that horsemeat looks a lot like beef, so who knows.
Again, I don’t have a specific problem with any meat that’s sustainable, not human and sourced as ethically as possible. But if you’re not down with secret horsemeat, there are scientists are on your side.