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Genomics Assures Customers About the Source of Their Meat

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When consumers go to the shop to buy their weekly groceries, they think about the origin of the meat and the rearing conditions of the animals. Is the meat hormone- and antibiotics-free, organic, from grass-fed and free-range raised animals? 

How can meat processors and retailers assure their customers that the meat they are buying is what is declared on the packaging? Assurance is especially important when it involves premium meat products that make specific claims on the label, such as a defined origin or farm, associated to a meat organisation, etc.  

Currently, only documents are used to trace back meat along the whole process chain.  Before slaughter, cattle for example are identified by ear tags. However after slaughter, the traceability of the carcasses and cuts along the supply chain are based on correct completion of paperwork and associated animal passports (Council of the European Communities, 2000). But is paperwork enough to give retailers certainty about the origin and features of the meat they offer to their customers?

How can consumer trust in meat products be improved? 

In today’s marketplace, a wide range of quality claims and certificates exist and are used by a lot of meat processors and retailers. The Genomic Meat Sourcing service offered by Eurofins enables full traceability of meat from the point of purchase to the farm of origin. Furthermore, it enables transparency of the supply chain, and analytical verification of the meat. This in turn leads to a strengthening of the credibility and image of the brand and, thus, to a strengthening of the consumer’s trust in the brand. Besides that, in the event of a food safety incident, the Genomic Meat Sourcing service also enables swift backtracking of meat products to assist in problem resolution (Heaton et al., 2005).

Genetic fingerprinting forms the basis of Genomic Meat Sourcing. Similar to the fingerprints of people, genetic fingerprints are unique to individual animals and can be used to precisely identify them. Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are very small genetic differences distributed over the whole genome can be used to generate a unique genetic fingerprint. They are also used in forensics and paternity testing as they are an elementary part of genetic variations in animals, and, significantly, they are genetically stable in mammals. Therefore, individual animals can be uniquely identified in a population according to specific sets of SNPs (Heaton et al., 2002; Heaton et al., 2005; Markovtsova et al., 2000; Nielsen, 2000; Thomson et al., 2000). For the Genomic Meat Sourcing service, selected SNP markers from the official bovine marker set of the ISAG (International Society for Animal Genetics, www.isag.us) were adopted. 

Genomic Meat Sourcing service procedure – a practical example

Once a group of animals is chosen for the production of a premium meat product, DNA samples are taken from each animal. These DNA samples are then used to generate the animal’s unique DNA-profiles - their genetic fingerprint -, and the data is then deposited in the meat processors and retailers customized database. 

Further down the supply chain, for instance at the butchers’ shop, a DNA sample of the meat is taken to determine its genetic fingerprint. The genetic data is then compared to the customer’s database to verify that the sample of the premium meat actually derives from the declared animal with the specified premium quality and has not been substituted or adulterated with other meat.

This procedure can also be applied to processed meat. Production batches can be identified and the movement of raw meat in large grinding factories can be monitored easily. DNA-based identification and verification of meat increases food safety and reduces the costs that are associated with product recalls.

Procedure of sampling - When, Where, How and Which animals?

Different time points and locations are suitable for DNA sampling. Based on convenience, feasibility, but also reliability, we would recommend two key points. The first sampling takes place during ear-tagging at the farm where special ear-tags can be used that automatically conserve the punched tissue. DNA for identification is extracted from these tags. The second point is during the slaughter process when the animal’s external appearance is lost. Here, swabs, small amounts of tissue, blood or hairs are taken for DNA extraction (Vázquez et al., 2004; Heaton et al., 2005). However, other sampling points can be utilized as necessary.

The Genomic Meat Sourcing service is mainly offered for premium beef and pork products but can also be considered for lamb and goat products.

Find out more here.


Council of the European Communities (2000) Regulation (EC) No. 1760/2000 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 July 2000 establishing a system for the identication and registration of bovine animals and regarding the labeling of beef and beef products and repealing Council Regulations (EC) No. 820/97. Off. J. Eur. Communities L204: 1-10.

Heaton, M.P., Harhay, G.P., Bennett, G.L., Stone, R.T., Grosse, W.M.,  Casas, E., Keele, J.W., Smith, T.P.L., Chitko-McKown, C.G., Laegreid, W.W. (2002) Selection and use of SNP markers for animal identification and paternity analysis in U.S. beef cattle. Mamm Genome. 13(5): 272-81.

Heaton, M.P., Keen, J.E., Clawson, M.L., Harhay, G.P., Bauer, N., Shultz, C., Green, B.T., Durso, L., Chitko-McKown, C.G., Laegreid, W.W. (2005) Use of bovine single nucleotide polymorphism markers to verify sample tracking in beef processing. JAVMA. 226(8): 1311-14. 

Markovtsova, L., Marjoram, P., Tavare, S. (2000) The age of a unique event polymorphism. Genetics 156:  401-9.

Nielsen, R. (2000) Estimation of population parameters and recombination rates from single nucleotide polymorphisms. Genetics 154: 931-42.

Thomson, R., Pritchard, J.K., Shen, P., Oefner, P.J., Feldman, M.W. (2000) Recent common ancestry of human Y chromosomes: evidence from DNA sequence data. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 97: 7360-5.

Vázquez, J.F., Pérez, T., Ureña, F., Gudín, E., Albornoz, J., Domínguez, A. (2004) Practical application of DNA fingerprinting to trace beef. J Food Prot. 67(5):972-9.