Q&A with Jennifer Quinlan: After Europe's Contaminated Meat Controversy, Is the U.S. at Risk?


The mislabeled meats first appeared in Sweden, the United Kingdom and France, and measures have been taken in Slovakia, Portugal, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Cyprus, Belgium and Ireland to prevent contaminated meat from reaching dinner tables.

Big-name brands affected by the tainted products include Burger King, Nestlé and, most recently, IKEA, which went as far as pulling its sausages and Swedish meatballs from many of its European stores.

DrexelNow consulted Dr. Jennifer Quinlan, an associate professor in the nutrition sciences department whose research focuses on the microbiological quality and safety of dairy and meat products, about how the horse meat oversight could have occurred and what it means for carnivores.

How are meats tested to verify that they are labeled correctly? Are products regularly tested?

Meat can be tested to determine the species it contains using commercially available tests that detect DNA from different types of animals including beef, pork, horse, sheep, goat, poultry, etc. In many cases, these tests are performed by individual companies to guarantee compliance with ethical or religious consumer needs. Most meat is not routinely tested to determine the species it comes from.

Since most beef and poultry produced in the United States is produced under USDA inspection, it is not likely that meat from a species other that what is being claimed would be incorporated. However, this issue underscores the lack of control either the government or individual consumers have over food that is imported. The U.S. generally does not have inspectors in other countries, and there are not resources to test everything that is imported.

Are there any food-safety or nutritional concerns in consuming horse meat?

From a nutritional and microbiological point of view, there is nothing unsafe about horse meat. Some cultures consume it regularly, and the protein and fat from a horse is not unlike the protein and fat from a cow. The only safety risks would be if horse meat were obtained from animals not specifically raised for human consumption. In animals raised for human consumption, their exposure to antibiotics, hormones, chemicals are carefully monitored, so animals not raised for human consumption may have increased exposure to contamination.

Why are some saying the poor will be the most affected by the meat mislabeling?

The vast majority of any testing of food is done by the food industry itself to ensure quality, maintain the integrity of their brand name and limit liability. If the poor rely on food from more "generic" companies that are not as concerned about quality and safety of their product as a brand name, the possibility exists that they would experience a greater exposure to cheaply produced or contaminated products.