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This German Meat Detective Is Looking for Horse in Your Dinner

After Horsegate rocked Europe in 2013, a group of German researchers started looking into ways to detect meat fraud more precisely than ever before. Long story short: Unless you don't mind eating Seabiscuit, be wary of corned beef.
Photo via Flickr user Luke Chan

Everyone loves a good mystery, except when it comes to their meat.

In 2013, a meat scandal dubbed "Horsegate" rocked Europe when it was discovered that several supermarket chains across the UK and the continent had sold beef products that had been adulterated with cheap filler meat from pigs and horses.

Despite the fact that some of the meat tested positive for phenylbutazone—a painkiller that's often administered to racehorses but is banned for use in food animals—Horsegate was less of a public health issue than it was an unsettling spotlight on how little we know about the provenance of our food. Both consumers and retailers place an enormous amount of trust in food producers to deliver exactly what they print on the label. But how can you distinguish one meat from another once its been ground up, formed into meatballs, and frozen into an innocent-looking microwavable tray?


Prof. Dr. Hans-Ulrich Humpf, a researcher at the Institute of Food Chemistry at the University of Münster in Germany, has a solution. Humpf and his team of researchers have developed a new method for analyzing prepared proteins and were successfully able to detect the presence of horse meat down to trace levels in both store-bought and homemade foods. They recently published their findings in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

The researchers used both commercially prepared foods and their own recipes for meatloaf and meatballs, which they cooked, cooled, and then froze in liquid nitrogen. After a quick blitz in a lab-grade blender, the samples took a spin in a centrifuge before being analyzed with a mass spectrometer. Admittedly, it's not a method you'll be reproducing in your own kitchen anytime soon.

But this new process could still be implemented higher up the supply chain, so we asked Humpf if he could speak a little about his research, his findings, and the state of meat fraud today. Long story short: Unless you don't mind eating Seabiscuit, be wary of corned beef.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Prof. Dr. Humpf. What inspired you to start researching methods of detecting meat fraud? Prof. Dr. Hans-Ulrich Humpf: We started this project for a totally different reason—namely ethical and religious concerns. As you know, Muslims are not allowed to eat pork. We started this project as we wanted to develop a new method to detect traces of pork meat in halal beef or other meat samples. During the project, the horse meat scandal occurred and we included horse meat in our method.


How serious is the issue of meat fraud in Europe and the world today? The problem is the global market; meat is shipped around the world. There are some "black sheep" [producers] who want to optimize their profit. This was the case last year in Europe when horse meat was found in many products.

So, if you eat beef lasagna, you would like [to know that you're actually eating] beef, and you can prove this now with our method. However, now meat producers, worldwide distributors, and food authorities woke up [to the issue] after this scandal and do more controls now.

How do you differentiate between different types of meat in a lab setting? Muscle protein of each species is very similar, but there are slight differences. You can compare this with a fingerprint. If you compare several fingers (of newborn babies, for example) they look all pretty much the same; however, if you have a closer look at the fingerprint [itself], each is different.

We use the same principle and can see slight differences in the protein of the different animal species and can detect this with a technique called mass spectrometry, which gives you a characteristic "fingerprint" of the protein pattern in your meat sample. The technique of mass spectrometry is well known in food analysis, for example, to detect pesticides. We used this technique for the first time to differentiate between meat species. With the existing methods (PCR and ELISA techniques), you can usually detect only one animal species and not several at the same time. With our new approach we can detect several species, which we call "multi-method."


Also, the other methods sometimes fail with highly processed food samples. An advantage of our new method [is that] we have shown that it works with highly processed samples, e.g. fried meatballs, lasagne, etc. The sensitivity is comparable, and under optimized conditions we can detect down to 0.1 percent of horse in beef.

Did your team find many instances of fraud in store-bought meat products? When we started this project, the horse meat scandal was already known and producers as well as distributors made more controls. For this reason we had just a few samples with undeclared content. For example, we had canned corned beef from a local supermarket which [we discovered] was 100 percent horse meat.

But what's wrong with eating horses? Thats a good question, as horse meat is of high quality and usually more expensive than beef. In Germany, some people eat horse as a speciality. However, I think the people had concerns as this [meat in the horse meat scandal] was not declared. Furthermore, the problem was that horse meat that was not intended as a food product was used. This meat was from old working horses from Eastern Europe, and was full of animal drugs.

That's not exactly appetizing. Drugged meat aside, what's your favorite meat dish? I like barbecue, as perhaps most Americans do, and my personal favorite is grilled beef.

Thanks for speaking with me.