A study published online in Food Control, an international scientific journal, in late July found that 20 per cent of sausages collected at various retail locations in Toronto, Montréal, and Calgary contained unlabelled ingredients.
The study was led by Robert Hanner, an associate professor at the University of Guelph. It was a joint venture between researchers at the University of Guelph and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which funded the project.
According to Mary L’Abbé, the Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at U of T, a CFIA spokesperson said the study also served “as research to check out a potential new [testing] method” called DNA barcoding.
The technique, which is intended to create a DNA library of all the world’s species, was used to identify the predominant meat species in the sausage samples. The DNA was then amplified via digital droplet PCR to identify any other meat species present in the sample.
Hanner and his team examined 100 raw sausage samples. They tested 27 beef sausages, 15 turkey sausages, 38 pork sausages, and 20 chicken sausages.
Of the 27 sausage samples labelled as beef, seven were contaminated with pork. Two of the 38 pork sausages tested contained beef, and one even contained horse meat. Of the 15 sausage samples labelled as turkey, five of them consisted predominantly of chicken.
The unlabelled ingredients made up more than one per cent of the portions of the contaminated sausages, which Hanner told the Toronto Star is an amount significant enough that it cannot be written off as an accident. Instead, it indicates “a breakdown in food processing or international food fraud.”
Ingredient mislabelling, particularly in meat products, is not a new issue. In 2015, Dawn Kane of Chapman University in California investigated retail ground meat products and found that just over 20 per cent of samples were mislabelled.
The Food Control study was the first of its kind in Canada.
“The main concern raised by this study, is that consumers want truthful labels for a variety of reasons… but [it is also] a health and safety issue, if there is a problem,” added L’Abbé in an email to The Varsity. “The latter becomes important if there happens to be a food borne illness outbreak, then public health officials have to trace the source of contamination, which can be seriously compromised when ingredients are not ‘traceable’ or foods are mislabelled.”
After the study was completed, the CFIA looked into the 20 mislabelling cases identified by the study. Their investigations found that — at least in the case of the mislabelled turkey sausages — the mislabelling was likely due to poor records maintenance for incoming meat supplies, an issue that the CFIA says has been resolved; the company that issued the sausage containing horse meat has voluntarily ceased operations.
According to L’Abbé, a variety of reasons could have caused the mislabelling. “The sausage issue is really one of deception, rather than nutrition per se – whether by inadvertent error in supply chains or because of an economic “fraudulent type” activity in an effort to reduce costs, or as the researcher suggests may be due to a lack of availability of an ingredient at the time.”
L’Abbé said that the CFIA intended for the study to help them “examine the potential problem more closely, to see how widespread it is.” The CFIA is now planning to conduct further, deeper analysis on meat fraud across the nation.