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Isotope Technology: Making Darwin Proud

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Isotope Technology: Making Darwin Proud

October 21
20:07 2013
Isotope Technology: Making Darwin Proud

As a world-leading brand, the Scotch beef industry invests considerable time and resources to ensure that the end product is of the highest quality for consumers. Unfortunately, this also makes it an attractive target for unscrupulous traders looking to pass off sub-standard imports as the genuine article. However, the sector has a secret weapon at its disposal. The rise in use of isotope technology – developed to establish the unique ‘fingerprint’ of meat by determining where it was produced – will help Scotland lead the rest of the UK in the commercial use of beef derived from the new phenomenon.

Margaret Stewart examines the impact it will have on the consumer’s eating experience…

Already used for verifying the origin of mineral waters, isotope technology is essentially a laboratory analysis of trace element information extracted from samples, which allow the authenticity of meat to be tested.

These trace elements – including hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and strontium isotopes – collectively form an accurate picture of the place where an animal spent the last few months of its life.

The test has emerged from several research projects which have contributed to a cost-effective system of testing that produces a high degree of accuracy when used on meat with no other distinguishing features.

The most significant of these is the Origin of British Beef project, funded by the Food Standards Agency and partnered by QMS, while others include the Stable Isotope Reference Analysis for Pork by QMS and BPEX, and TRACE, a larger, European-funded study.

The theory behind the technology is impressive. Water cycles are the key factor with both hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios, for example, and so evaporation, condensation and rainfall provide a point of difference for wetter Scotland with the dryer parts of England.

Sulphate contained within sea spray affects sulphur isotopic ratios which fall exponentially the further an animal gets from the sea. The level of volcanism in the rock also changes sulphur concentrations. Strontium ratios are affected by radiogenic decay, which occurs at very different rates depending on whether the underlying rock is mudstone, sandstone or of granitic origin.

Meanwhile, carbon and nitrogen levels are an indication of an animal’s diet, rather than directly measuring the location. Scottish pastures are made of plants that use C3 carbon fixation, in contrast to warmer areas such as Brazil where animals graze predominantly C4 plants such as maize. Given the international trade in feed ingredients, however, carbon and nitrogen results alone would not be enough to identify from where the meat originated.

Existing QMS supply chain verification includes plant inspections, in-store label audits and targeted spot checks, and the initial focus of the new isotope testing – which is set to get underway later this summer – will be on beef and pork in foodservice.

Further research is also being carried out to ensure that the test is not affected by the presence of other substances such as sauces or cross-contamination, where meats of multiple origin have been cooked on the same surface. However, if the results are anything like as positive as those already gleaned through blind testing – which itself has provided a very high level of accuracy – then end users can rest assured their interests will be protected by the innovative appliance of a particularly enlightening and reliable science.

This article has been edited from its original version. For the complete feature, please see Catering in Scotland magazine August/September 2011.

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