Global Observer

Laser technology can ID any meat type -- horse or otherwise

Laser technology can ID any meat type -- horse or otherwise

Posting in Food

BERLIN -- With everyone up in arms about horse meat, why is this technology so far from being readily available in the market?

BERLIN --  German media hype surrounding Europe's horse meat scandal became so inflated by late February, that when the government asked homeless shelters to feed the mislabeled (albeit quality-tested) products to their needy solicitors, most non-profit organizations refused.

"The government can't allow controversy to unfold and then expect to feed the symbol of the debacle to the homeless," one organization's general manager weighed in.

While government officials argued that horse meat poses no health risk, consumer advocates countered that the risk could not be assessed, since the meat's origin was unknown. According to Germany's Die Zeit, some samples even contained traces of the animal medication Phenylbutazone, which may not be administered to horses intended for consumption.

Given the hysteria, it's surprising then that a laser meat scanner -- which can identify the animal source of meat, along with its age, in a matter of seconds -- has gone untapped by the market since its initial inception two years ago.

Developed at a spectroscopy lab at the Technical University Berlin, the scanner, by Dr. Heinz-Detlef Kronfeldt, employs a so-called "Raman" laser to extract a spectral "picture" of its subject.

"Raman [laser spectroscopy] gives us a fingerprint of each meat, just like [the fingerprints] people have," Kronfeldt's doctoral student Halah Al Ebrahim explains.

Following tweaks to reduce its size and increase durability, the scanner is now about the size of a handheld drill. But the most promising characteristic of the device is perhaps its versatility: Any information the laser can extract can be interpreted by the scanner's software, turning databases of readings -- like the one Al Ebrahim is building -- into a powerful resource.

That could make it useful to the many actors in Europe's long, international food supply chain.

Two earlier prototypes have been tested in a Bavarian slaughterhouse under the supervision of one of Kronfeldt's post-doctoral students with much positive feedback, and the project has since been published via multiple scientific papers. But as for the demand of supermarkets or government agencies?

"No one is interested, because who should be?" Kronfeldt says. "The industry is not interested. The [labs] that check this meat aren't interested … why? Because the laser is too fast: They'd have to reduce staff if it entered the market."

Andreas Winkler of foodwatch, a German food consumer protection group, tells SmartPlanet that laws will have to change before the demand for any such technology can emerge:

"It has to be in the interest of supermarkets to do everything they can to make sure they're selling what they say they are: At the moment, there's no reason because there are hardly any consequences for mistakes. There are lawsuits still pending over the last dioxin scandal" -- the January 2011 discovery of toxic dioxins in the feed of thousands of German farms -- "and that was a potentially life-threatening issue.

"When BMW puts a car on the market and the brakes fail, BMW can't talk its way out of liability: It should be the same for food."

Markus Jablonski, German spokesperson for the Real supermarket chain, told SmartPlanet Real depends on supply chain reliability, which it is now re-examining.

"The contents of our generic store brand products come from another retailer down the supply chain. We don't normally test pre-packaged foods: Just like the consumer, we trust that what's on the package is what's inside. So when we suspect something is wrong, we have to take those products to a laboratory and have them tested."

Jablonski says Real plans to prevent future issues with more frequent tests on all its pre-packaged foods, though he had no comment on the relevance of Kronfeldt's meat scanner in ensuring the quality and contents of Real's fresh meat products. He said his store's meat does occasionally come from abroad.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kronfeldt, Al Ebrahim and the rest of their team continue developing databases of spectroscopic information about meat, as well as water pollutants (a waterproof prototype capsule has also been developed to this end). Kronfeldt says the growing ability to extract pictures of the Raman spectrum is presenting myriad possibilities:

"We've also [scanned] toys, because toys are colored. If you get toys from China, they're often strongly colored, and you can measure the [intensity of the dye from its 'fingerprint'] based on the fluorescence of the dyes. Also of some lemonades, or cheese.

"We can even distinguish between real and artificial cheese."

PHOTO: TU Berlin / Shannon Smith

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure