Andy McGowan, head of industry development at Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “I suspect there’s a fair bit of this going on because Scotch Beef commands a premium of 50% over the cheapest imports, which makes it an attractive target for substitution.”
“The more expensive food gets, the harder it is for those supplying consumers to make a decent margin, which increases the appeal of substitution,” he said.
Most of the imported beef that is masquerading as Scotch beef comes from either Ireland or South America, “where you get consistent volumes of reasonable quality beef but at a cheaper price”, he added.
The practice of beef substitution is most common in the foodservice industry, owing to a lack of supply chain transparency, according to McGowan.
Historically, it has been difficult to get an idea of the extent of the problem, let alone crack down on it, as the responsibility lies with local authorities to bring to justice establishments that are suspected of malpractice.
“It is difficult for local authorities to get a cast- iron case they can take to court. And because they have limited resources, they don’t want to go chasing something that has a limited chance of success. For this reason, a lot of it goes undetected,” said McGowan.
However, a new method of testing could make it easier to bring unscrupulous meat traders to justice. Isotope testing has emerged from several research projects jointly funded by QMS, the Food Standards Agency and BPEX among others, as a means of authenticating the country of origin of meat samples.
The test is essentially a laboratory analysis of trace element information extracted from samples. Each sample is tested for levels of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, oxygen and strontium isotopes, giving a ‘fingerprint’ of the place the animal spent the last few months of its life. For example, in the west of the UK, hydrogen isotope levels are high and decline towards the east and into continental Europe.
BPEX, the organisation representing pig levy payers in England, is also interested in exploring the potential of the technology ahead of the EU Food Information Regulation.
“As the labelling laws currently stand, you can take Dutch pork and sell it as British bacon,” said McGowan. “The new regulation will restrict that practice, so BPEX is keen to ensure that isn’t going on.”
Kim Matthews, meat scientist at BPEX, identifies the main sources of cheaper pork as Denmark and Poland.
At present, Matthews says the technology is not ready for law enforcement purposes, but could be used as a first point of screening.
“It’s a tool you can use alongside existing audit and QA systems to drill down where a concern arises,” he said.
And rather than being a tool that would be deployed by individual manufacturers or retailers, Matthews says he would expect the testing to be offered by specialist laboratories.