Laser spectrometer helps detect impurities in ground beef

Burger (and taco) lovers rejoice. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found a more accurate way of determining the purity of ground beef.

Thanks to a laser-equipped spectrometer and the power of analytics, food science students led by Prof. Xiaona Lu were able to determine with 99 per cent accuracy whether ground beef samples included unwanted animal products. What’s more, the procedure took less than five minutes. Their work was published this month in Scientific Reports.

The new method has the potential of changing the way food is inspected by industry and government regulatory bodies and could be used to battle food fraud, according to the UBC News.

Food fraud is the intentional misrepresentation of food products for economic gain. In the past five years for instance, there have been several high-profile scandals in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Russia where lamb, chicken, and even rat meat were substituted for high-quality meat products.

“By using this innovative technique, the detection of food fraud can be simpler, faster and easier,” said the study’s lead author Yaxi Hu, a PhD candidate in UBC’s faculty of land and food systems.

Generally, regulators rely on DNA testing to check the purity of meat products. While this method is efficient and accurate, it has some shortcomings.

For instance, DNA testing cannot identify organs such as livers, hearts, kidneys, stomachs, and offal mixed in with the meat of the same species.

To get around this, the UBC researchers resorted to using a spectrometer to detect other meat products that may have been added to batches of ground beef.

Since animal products have different compositions, their molecules absorb and scatter energy from the spectrometer in different ways.

The spectrometer picks up these different signals to produce an image of each product. These spectral images were used by the researchers to create a library of spectral images which can be compared to the image of an unadulterated ground beef.

This new method is an improvement over existing techniques such as liquid chromatography which requires meat samples to be liquefied with solvents before testing and takes more than an hour, said Hu.

The researchers now intend to create an affordable smart device that can be used by consumers at home.

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