It sounds like something straight out of a CSI episode and in some ways it is. Oritain, a New Zealand company specializing in scientific traceability to fight food fraud, is seeking a distinct fingerprint for Ontario beef.
Both Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) and the Ontario Independent Meat Processors (OIMP) have invested in the project.
BFO’s interest started with a regional marketing initiative to enhance consumer confidence in beef. Part of that was to address the negative consequences mislabelling has on public perceptions of beef products and by extension farmers, abattoirs and the entire beef sector.
A quick and accurate test to differentiate beef raised in Ontario from other sources, the thinking goes, would go a long way toward discouraging anyone trying to cut some corners with a branded Ontario beef product.
This initiative has been underway since January but the reasons behind it gained some added credibility in August with the publication of a University of Guelph study commissioned by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) that revealed 20 of 100 sausages collected from stores across Canada were not made from the single ingredient stated on the label. Seven beef sausages contained turkey, five turkey sausages were all chicken, and while some pork sausages contained beef, one contained horse meat.
The horse-meat scandal in Europe a few years ago has encouraged CFIA to be more watchful for mislabelling of meat and food products.
An investigation by the CFIA landed an Ontario meat packer in court in September on charges of mislabelling. The company was fined $200,000 for offences under the Food and Drugs Act and 4,557 cases of beef trim worth $613,572 ordered disposed by rendering.
BFO was making a final push last month to collect more samples from western and central Ontario abattoirs. Project co-ordinator Susan Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald & Co. at Elmira, Ont., was anticipating that by the end of October they would have over 200 samples of inch-thick lean beef from provincial abattoirs. That’s less than the 300 to 400 they had hoped for when they started collecting samples back in June, but she says this could be sufficient for their analysis because the samples were diverse enough to meet their target of sampling 120 to 150 farms from across the province.
Oritain is analyzing the samples to identify isotope ratios and trace elements in the beef. Those results will then be run through the company’s statistical models to create a composite fingerprint for Ontario beef.
Examples of the isotope ratios they are looking for are oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 and hydrogen-2 to hydrogen-1. These ratios naturally differ from region to region and country to country because of temperature, altitude and precipitation. The ratios of carbon isotopes and nitrogen isotopes, as well as the trace elements in the samples, vary due to soil characteristics and the feed consumed by livestock.
The Ontario beef fingerprint would then be tested against beef samples from elsewhere to determine whether the samples are consistent or inconsistent with the Ontario beef fingerprint.
Oritain’s work to date has been for primary producers marketing branded honey dairy, lamb, fruit, egg, fish and fibre products as well as producers of wine, beer, chocolate, and pharmaceuticals aiming to maintain consumer trust in their well-known brands.
In the case of some branded products that follow specific production protocols, it is possible to pin the origin fingerprint to a specific farm.
If an imitation product is marketed as being from New Zealand or even containing an ingredient from New Zealand, for example, samples of the suspect product obtained from anywhere along the supply chain, including the retail outlet, can be tested against the product’s origin fingerprint to prove fraud.
Having Oritain’s unique fingerprint logo on the packages of products certified as being origin-verified can in itself be a deterrent to would-be imitators.
“Our project may be a bit more challenging as we are looking for a fingerprint that represents all Ontario beef. Given the very different geographies within our province, this may be more difficult to do,” Fitzgerald says.
The decision as to what comes next will be up to BFO and OIMP after they receive the results from Oritain, expected December 1.