No More Mystery Meat

12 March 2004 (All day)

Confident it's not cat. A new gene chip for food may become de rigeur for savvy diners.

Worried about what the cow in your hamburger was eating? Or want to see if that tiny $100 can of goose pâté actually holds a cheap substitute? A new gene chip made especially for food may be just what you've been looking for.

Last month a French company, bioMérieux, launched a new gene expression test that can identify those mystery meats. Called FoodExpert-ID, it contains 88,000 handpicked probes from 33 kinds of vertebrates including ostrich, Mozambican eel, and--more disturbingly--cat. Human DNA is on there too, but mainly as a "control," according to bioMérieux.

The chip is made by Affymetrix, whose GeneChip technology is already used in genomics labs the world over. It is meant to be used by manufacturers as sort of a seal of quality. Once evaluated, a product will receive an "identity card" listing all the species detected. "Unknown vertebrates" will also get picked up. Besides revealing cheap substitutes, such as the use of pork liver in the pâté de foie gras, it can be used to reassure those with strict food preferences and to test animal feed for vertebrate byproducts--a growing concern because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

"Food purity is an important global issue," says Michael Hansen, a researcher at Consumers Union, which is pushing for a U.S. ban on mammalian or poultry parts in ruminant feed. "I expect many of these sorts of tests will start coming out."

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