People buying ground beef expect to buy a cow's meat, but it appears that it isn't the case at all times. Researchers sampled ground meat sold in the U.S. and found that some of the samples contain horse meat, which is illegal to sell.

Using DNA barcoding and real-time polymerase chain reaction analysis, researchers from Chapman University analyzed 48 fresh and frozen ground-meat products to see what is in them and found that 10 of these contained meat species different to what was in the label.

Nine of the samples had additional meat species and one had an entirely different animal. The analysis also detected horse meat in two of the samples.

Horse meat is considered a delicacy in some countries such as China, Italy and Iceland. While consuming horse meat does not generally pose health risks, it is not consumed in the U.S. because of cultural and ethical reasons.

"We see them differently because they are an animal on which the West was built and they are an iconic species," said Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director for the Humane Society's Wildlife Protection Program. "They represent the rugged individualism that is symbolic of the West. People want them to be free."

The study's results, which were published in the journal Food Control, isn't the first time that manufacturers were found mixing up animals. The 2013 meat-adulteration scandal that hit Europe involved foods that were advertised as containing beef but were found to have either improperly declared or undeclared horse meat, with some products containing as much as 100 percent horse meat.

"Although extensive meat species testing has been carried out in Europe in light of the 2013 horse meat scandal, there has been limited research carried out on this topic in the United States," said study author Rosalee Hellberg, from Chapman University in California. "To our knowledge, the most recent U.S. meat survey was published in 1995."

As for the source of contamination, the researchers said it is possible that there was cross-contamination at the processing facility. Unintentional mislabeling may happen when meat from more than one species is ground using the same manufacturing equipment and the equipment is not properly cleaned between processing different samples.

It is also possible that suppliers intentionally mix in meats of lower-cost species with those of more expensive species for economic gain.

The researchers likewise found that mislabeling tends to be most prevalent in products bought from online specialty meat distributors, which have 35 percent mislabeling rate.

Photo: Danielle Scott | Flickr

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