When the story broke in late June that popular Montreal specialty butcher La Maison du Rôti was selling horsemeat as beef, it made Canadian national news. But U.K. science journalist Nicola Temple, author of the book Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics (Bloomsbury 2016, with Richard Evershed), warns that however shocking these stories are, they are hardly new crimes.
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Temple, herself a Canadian expatriate, chronicles the long history of food fraud in her book, noting a variety of instances ranging far wider than any single butcher shop. Among them, she notes the prevalence of semi-toxic deep water escolar fish sold as tuna, and the ignominious story of “Maggot Pete” Roberts, a U.K. businessman who recycled meat unfit for human consumption back into catering companies serving schools and hospitals—a crime that caught headlines nearly a decade before the U.K.
While the book discusses many foods, Temple isolates meat as the frequent victim of adulteration and counterfeit.
“Meat is a fairly expensive commodity, so it’s a target,” she says.
However, Temple admits the Maison du Rôti scandal was a surprise, because usually food fraud takes place in businesses with more complex meat processing, rather than on the site of a single craft butcher.
Consider, she suggests, the example of a supermarket chain that asks a middle-man to produce a lasagna.
“The supplier will hire someone to make the lasagnas, who will then source their meat from more than one meat trader,” Temple explains. “There are in-between steps the average public doesn’t know exist: there are traders trying to get the best money, processors who are just making the mince, and there’s the abattoir. When you get processed food, there are so many more steps in the food supply chain: [adulteration] can happen at any step.”
One company that came out of the U.K. horsemeat scandal proudly was McDonald’s. Because of its low prices, many expected McDonald’s had to be cutting corners somewhere in the meat production process, but it wasn’t.
“In the U.K., they’ve been buying their meat from the same supplier for 40 years, and the chain is really short: farm, abattoir, processor, McDonald’s,” Temple says. “Developing longstanding relationships is a way that industry can reduce its vulnerability.”
Another way for industry to ensure that the meat it’s buying is legitimate is DNA testing—a sure-fire, yet expensive method. Temple cites the growing number of fish companies who have resorted to DNA testing fish sourced from China to ensure that it is what suppliers claim it is.
“That obviously adds quite a bit of cost to the business, but it assures them that what they’re getting is truly what they’ve asked for,” says Temple.
Noting that one Canadian fish distributor includes information about their DNA testing in their marketing material, Temple stresses, “With consumer concerns about authenticity, particularly about product coming from China, they feel that’s money well-spent.”
For the North American industry at large, Temple says she’s encouraged by the recent Food Defence Regulation adopted as part of the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, which she applauds for “placing the onus on industry so that producers can feel comfortable when they’re buying 100 percent ground beef.”
As for her home life, Temple says she’s been most affected by food fraud via the use of peanut shells used as filler in cumin paprika.
Adulteration to spices shows “how quickly [adulteration] can penetrate the food chain. They’re in everything from marinated meats to falafel, posing a serious health-risk to people with nut allergies. The change I made was to buy all of my spices whole and grind them myself.”