x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

UAE meat chain is not contaminated, say food authorities

Food authorities say DNA tests on meat in Abu Dhabi and Dubai would show up any horse flesh, and that the contamination scandal that has gripped Europe is not a threat in the UAE.

ABU DHABI // Food authorities say DNA tests on meat in Abu Dhabi and Dubai would show up any horse flesh, and that the contamination scandal that has gripped Europe is not a threat in the UAE.

Since January, some frozen products including burgers and ready meals that were being sold on the continent as beef contained a high proportion of horse meat. Some were also contaminated with pork.

The companies affected are French firm Comigel, which produced the Findus lasagne found to contain 100 per cent horse meat, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, England, both of which are subsidiaries of ABP Food Group.

"All three companies have frozen meat products, however none are imported to Dubai," said Asia Murad, Dubai Municipality's head of studies and food planning.

The only products made by those companies on sale here are frozen seafood, vegetables and coffee products.

"We won't need to recall these products because they are not the subject of the investigation," Ms Murad said.

UAE food authorities use advanced technology to prevent contamination, especially with pork.

The municipality's laboratory has a biochemical testing system called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which tests the DNA in food.

"It has been used for diagnostic applications from the detection of bacterial and viral pathogens," said Munira Al Sayegh, a food microbiologist at the municipality.

The DNA in the food is heated to 95°C, which separates it into single strands in which scientists look for pathogens and viruses.

"Although the science is developing very fast and a new technique comes up every time, the PCR and real-time PCR are considered the most commonly used in molecular biology," Ms Al Sayegh said.

Tests take up to two days to complete. If a product is found to be contaminated with pork, the department immediately disposes of it.

"We give the results to the food control department to reject the samples from either the port or from the market," said Maha Suwaiket, the municipality's head of food and environment.

DNA testing of food is crucial to ensure no Muslim is at risk of eating pork from halal-certified meat.

Without such testing, "people could be eating pork without noticing, and every Muslim needs to know whether they can be sure that their food is really halal or not", said Dr Christoph Wambach, the general manager of GeneCon International.

GeneCon is a German laboratory that tests food for genetic modification and allergens.

"Fraud in food processing is not new. You find this problem everywhere," said Dr Wambach.

He said slaughterers could not always be trusted.

"In the past, we often found in the blood of fresh cow meat contaminations with pig DNA," he said. "Sometimes, it was from halal butchers."

But the UAE's precautions should ensure no contaminated meat gets through.

"Due to the complicated global trade of foods and religious beliefs, reliable and specific methods of species determination in a variety of food items are needed," said Ms Al Sayegh.

"Our test is designed to investigate the presence of six different meat species commonly used in processed meat products". These include beef, pork, chicken, horse, goat and mutton or lamb.

"Consumers need to be aware of the halal norms governing the system for preparing and serving food products - in the case of meat, how animals are slaughtered, labelled, stored, refrigerated, cooked and served," said Saif Al Midfa, director general of Expo Centre Sharjah.

"Retailers, suppliers and restaurants need to be aware that people have a right to know what food they are eating and it is their duty to describe their products correctly."

Abu Dhabi also uses the PCR technique for DNA testing.

"It analyses different food samples to check whether the food contains pork by detecting the presence of pork DNA," said Mohamed Jalal Al Rayssi, the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority's communications director.

It can detect even the tiniest amount of rogue DNA.

"DNA tests are very accurate and very sensitive," he said. "We perform DNA analysis for other meat species identification and GMO screening.

"If any food is found not compliant with the regulations, it will be withdrawn from the markets."

cmalek@thenational.ae