Has authenticity of meat products changed since the last major meat scandal: “Horse gate”?

Back to Posts

Has authenticity of meat products changed since the last major meat scandal: “Horse gate”?

In a simple answer, yes there have been some alterations to legislation by authorities worldwide to reduce the chances of this form of scandal happening again. Plenty more is still required around the world to gain customer trust in meat products. This blog will explore the horse meat scandal that happened across Europe in 2013. Additionally, the most recent defamation to the meat industry occurring in Brazil will also be examined. The inquest into these will display what changes to legislation there have been, if any and where there is still improvement needed when testing meat products.

What was the horse meat scandal and the implications of this?

In 2013, the horse meat scandal took Europe by storm when foods were advertised to contain beef, yet were adulterated with horse meat. This lead to widespread disgust and anger from consumers about the beef products sold in shops. The use of horse meat displayed that there was a clear breakdown in the traceability of the food supply chain, and asks the question, what is in meat products?

Even though horse meat was not an ingredient that would harm people, harmful ingredients could have made their way into the food production process. Any legislation that was in place to prevent this form of episode from happening, obviously failed. As horse meat did enter the food chain, it raised uncertainty as to whether authorities were able to trace whether meat-based products were adulterated or contaminated.

A main concern when the horse meat scandal came to light, was that horses may have been treated with the veterinary drug phenylbutazone, which would then have entered the food chain. This would have been a risk to humans eating the meat as it causes bone marrow depression and some nasty side effects including nausea, epigastric distress, dizziness, blurred vision and headaches.

Other than health impacts, there has also been religious implications. In addition to beef based products containing horse meat, it was discovered that in many cases that supposedly 100% beef food products also contained pork meat. This discovery had religious implications as pork consumption is prohibited within Jewish and Muslim religions.

The scandal wasn’t limited to just the UK, with the compromised beef based products spreading to 13 different European countries within a couple of months. Consumers were unable to trust any beef product, regardless of where it originated from. However, this did lead to the start of a European-wide attempt at a solution that would prevent this from happening again.

Was this the only meat scandal that’s taken place?

No, sadly this is not the only case; there have been many incidences of meat scandals across the globe for hundreds of years, with large-scale food breaches occurring every couple of years.

The most recent scandal took place in Brazil. In this instance, the scandal showed meat producers were bribing investigators to certify meat, which was either rotten or tainted with salmonella. Unfortunately for Brazil, this detection has prompted countries throughout the world to take measures to avoid importing their meat. This scandal has impacted one of Brazil’s biggest exports, with a loss of $52 million in the second quarter of 2017.

As a result, Brazil’s government undertook a complete reconfiguration of the federal food inspectors, with many corrupt investigators losing their jobs. Furthermore, over 30 meatpacking factories were under immediate investigation. Changes made by the Brazilian government ensure that future meat products adhere to safer and more sanitary rulings.

The Brazilian example, along with the fraudulent use of horse meat in Europe, portrays that when a major food breach takes place, countries take swift action to prevent it, or something similar, occurring again.

However, it should not be outrages from the public that cause legislation changes. Legislation should already be in place to stop scandals from occurring in the first place. So, it asks the question, is there legislation in place throughout the world to prevent this from happening

What does legislation say across the world for controlling meat produce?

Currently, the legislation on the control of meat products varies worldwide, which in itself is a problem. Different countries have their own authorities and strategies in place, for example, in Europe there is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The EFSA was formed in 2002 due to multiple food safety crises and works to keep the risks associated with the food chain to a minimum. Their presence and legislation did not prevent the horse meat scandal taking place though.

To control legislation across Europe, the EFSA work in close collaboration with other food safety authorities from across different nations. England, Wales and Northern Ireland are all controlled by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), who along with the EFSA attempt to make food safe and more trustworthy for the customer. It is an ongoing job to reduce food production chain mishaps, and constant new legislation is required to achieve this.

New legislation from the FSA has been instigated to control meat speciation. A pragmatic level of 1% has been put in place to distinguish between adulterated meat and cross contamination. This is because cross contamination is usually unavoidable when multiple species of meat are processed on the same line in a factory. Therefore 1% is the maximum tolerated level; permitting a threshold to consider when meat has been adulterated and therefore not fit for use.  This change has been implemented in the UK and throughout most of Europe, but around the world, there are varying strictness of control.

America’s authority for food safety is controlled by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has controls in place for most foods, but worryingly at present, they do not ensure food safety for meat and poultry. This is also seen across-Asia-Pacific and South America where there is not currently stringent control of meat products. However, it is predicted that these areas will display the largest meat speciation testing market growth over the next few years as new rules and regulations are planned to be implemented by 2024. Till now, Europe has had the largest volume of meat speciation testing.

The legislation worldwide for controlling meat varies greatly, with the frequency of meat and food-based scandals occurring every couple of years still. As every country adheres to different standards, authorities, and legislation, it means consumers can never fully trust the meat products that they are eating.

Is there one way to test meat speciation?

It is strange that there are vast differences in legislation on the control of meat speciation, given that it is now much easier to test meat speciation compared with previous years. Numerous methods are available, whether you are targeting species-specific proteins through Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) or liquid chromatography. Or whether you are targeting DNA through hybridization or single strand conformational analysis. A method gaining popularity for testing meat speciation is known as DNA speciation testing. This uses real-time PCR to quantify meat speciation by detecting the level of adulterated meat DNA in a sample. This is highly sensitive and sufficiently quantifies meat at the specificity level of 1%.

A benefit of using real-time PCR to perform meat speciation testing is that it is a fast, accurate and easy to use method. The Primerdesign genesig Speciation Kits are available for horse, beef, pork and many other animal species. These kits are easy to use by anyone regardless of their scientific background, and can be run on all real-time cyclers. The genesig kits are also optimised to run on the genesig q16, which is the most affordable qPCR instrument for meat speciation testing. Visit the Primerdesign website to find out more.


BBC News (2013) Q&A: Horsemeat scandal [ONLINE]

EFSA Meat Inspection (2017) European Food Safety Authority Meat Inspection Summary [ONLINE]

FSA (2017) Overview of testing protocol [ONLINE]

FSA Meat Industry Guide (MIC) (2016) Food Standards Agency Meat Industry Guide [ONLINE]

FSA News Item (2013) Meat – More results of beef product testing published. Food law News – UK – 2013 [ONLINE]

Gillespie, P., Darlington, S., Brochetta, M. (2017) Brazil’s spoiled meat scandal widens worldwide.  CNN Money.

Laws enforced U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2017) U.S Food & Drug Administration Laws Enforced by FDA Summary [ONLINE]

Mano, A., Maler, S., Shumaker, L (2017) Brazil’s BRF reports second-quarter net loss of 167 million reais on food scandal fallout. Reuters [ONLINE]

Morgan, S (2017) Meat speciation testing market trends exhibits big growth by 2016-2024. The Tri-County Press [ONLINE]

Nesic, K., Stojanovic, D., Baltic, M. (2017) Authentication of meat and meat products vs. detection of animal species in feed – what is the difference? Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science. 85


Back to Posts