Hidden horse and other mislabeled meat revealed in new study

Meat labeling
© Joe Gough

More than 20 percent of commercial consumer ground meat products contained a species other than that labeled, researchers find.

To many vegetarians the distinction between one species or another doesn’t really matter – what’s the difference between eating cow or horse? But for the omnivores out there it may mean a lot. Which is why the findings of two separate studies by researchers in Chapman University's Food Science Program are notable, especially given that it’s apparently been a while since this type of survey has taken place.

"Although extensive meat species testing has been carried out in Europe in light of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, there has been limited research carried out on this topic in the United States," said Rosalee Hellberg, Ph.D., co-author on both studies. "To our knowledge, the most recent U.S. meat survey was published in 1995."

The first study focused on identification of species found in ground meat products as compared to their labels; the second looked at game meat species labeling. Both studies were focused on products sold in the United States commercial market. Both found that mislabeling of meat was not uncommon.

In the first, 48 samples of fresh and frozen ground meat products of various animals were analyzed in the lab to determine their content. They found that 10 of the samples were mislabeled. Of those, nine were found to have more species than the label indicated and one sample was labeled just completely wrong.

In addition, horsemeat was found in two of the samples.

The authors say the findings of multiple species suggests the possibility of cross-contamination at the processing facility – if equipment isn’t properly cleaned between products, the meat can mix. Another trend observed in the study indicates the possibility of lower-cost species being intentionally mixed in with higher-cost species for economic gain, according to a press statement for the study.

The second study looked at the labeling on game meat species. Game meat is a $39 billion specialty market in the U.S. and accounts for exotic meats which are not the livestock basics included in the Federal Meat Inspection Actand the Poultry Products Inspection Acts. Here the researchers collected 54 products from American online retail shops. Of those, 10 were shown to be mislabeled. Two products described as bison and one as yak were actually plain old domestic cattle. Meanwhile, one product labeled as pheasant that was identified as helmeted guineafowl. Another package labeled as black bear provided something very very not-bear: American beaver.

The studies were published in the journal Food Control.

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