Testing suggests some ground meat isn’t quite what it seems

By Tim Nelson
Updated September 06, 2018
Credit: Burcu Atalay Tankut/Getty Images

Mystery meat: the sole province of school cafeteria speculation and shady Scientologist entrepreneurs. Or so we thought.

That’s because the United Kingdom seems to have something of an ‘unspecified meat’ problem on its hands. Of the 665 samples that the UK’s Food Standards Agency collected in 2017, a whopping 145 of them (more than 20%) contained— or in some cases were entirely made up of— unspecified meats that were not included on labels or packaging. Each of the 145 contained greater than 1% of a secondary meat, a threshold the FSA uses to qualify “deliberate inclusion.”

The surprising findings come from laboratory DNA tests performed on the meats of 487 businesses across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Information obtained by the BBC indicates that the suspect samples came from 73 retailers (3 of which were supermarkets), 50 restaurants, and 22 manufacturers/processors.

So how exactly did these wilfully deceitful practices play out? More than half (77) of the total samples with rogue animal DNA were marketed as “lamb”, followed by “beef” (29), “goat” (19), and “pork” (18). Mince, often used as meat pie filling, was most likely to deceive consumers, though kebabs, curries, and sausages also falsified their contents.

In some cases, pork meat was found in lamb, which presents a problem for both kosher and halal eating. Most bizarrely, the FSA cites one instance where a portion of ostrich meat was made up entirely of beef. It’s so brazen that you really have no choice but to respect the ambitious marketing genius responsible for that one.

Before British carnivores start to panic, it’s important to note that this data set shouldn’t be viewed as wholly representative of the UK’s meat. The FSA specifically conducted these DNA tests at businesses with suspected labelling compliance issues, so there’s a selection bias towards ersatz meat in the data set. If anything, the FSA wishes that local and regional councils were more willing to send them meat samples to study as part of the United Kingdom's Food Surveillance System they oversee.

The completion of FSA testing means any investigations are now in the hands of local authorities, who will have to decide if prosecution is necessary. In the meantime, you may want to steer clear of the lamb next time you dine out in the UK unless you like surprises.