DNA pilot project for beef supply chain launched in UK

A pilot project has launched in the UK to look at the potential for DNA traceability system through the UK’s complex beef supply chain.

The first samples from the pilot were taken last week, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which has teamed up with industry on the project and is funding the pilot.

The UK National DNA Traceability Initiative is brings together AHDB, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), the National Farmers Union (NFU) and IdentiGEN, a specialist in DNA traceability recently acquired by Merck & Co’s MSD Animal Health unit.

The aim is to develop a “robust and scientifically verified traceability platform which could provide greater protection and value both at home and for the growing export market,” said ADHB in a statement, noting that this “mirror initiatives underway in other key European markets.”

If successful, the pilot project will give consumers greater transparency around livestock farming and animal welfare as well as the ability to confirm the provenance of products served up in foodservice and manufacturing sectors. In time it may be extended to the pig and sheep sectors.

“DNA traceability offers the potential to identify and trace all beef back to the British animal ear tag and farm of origin with the precision and accuracy of science, even for complex supply chains such as ready meal production,” according to ADHB.

“Under current legislation, clear country of origin labelling is required for beef and mince sold at retail,” said AHDB’s international market development director Dr Phil Hadley.

“This is not the case for products destined for the food service or manufacturing sectors [so] this pilot project will address a number of gaps within the UK’s beef market,” he added.

Last year, a 20-year analysis of food fraud in the beef supply chain by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast found more than 400 cases between 1997 and 2017, with more than a third of incidents taking place in primary processing facilities.

Counterfeiting – defined as products that have been illegally produced with the intention of mimicking or copying a legitimate counterpart – turned out to be the most common form of fraud, accounting for 43% of cases.

It said that fraud peaked in 2013 – around the time the horsemeat scandal rocked the UK and European market – but continues at a higher level than before that spike.

The pilot DNA system will create the potential to link finished retail or manufactured product back to the animal and farm in the small and medium processing sectors.

“Key to having an economically sustainable livestock sector is the need to achieve carcass balance and to recover premia not just from the most expensive steaks and joints, but from the entire carcass,” said ADHB.

“This requires robust and effective traceability across all segments of meat production, not just in retail.”

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