Local lab holding key to horse meat scandal
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 5:37 p.m.
The small staff at a Gainesville meat testing business has been working extra hours and weekends to run tests on beef in its lab and make test kits for food manufacturers as a result of the European horse meat scandal.
ELISA Technologies is the only company that makes test kits to detect horse meat using a process that is a lower-cost alternative to DNA testing. The kits are on back order.
The company has distributors all over the world, and business “just sort of blew up” starting a few weeks ago after processed beef tainted with horse meat was found in supermarkets, restaurants, schools and hospitals throughout Europe, said Natalie Rosskopf, administrative director.
“Our distributors were emailing and calling and faxing going a little crazy about ‘When can we get them, when can we get them,'” said Rosskopf, who volunteered that her name is German for “horse head.”
The company's lab in the Northwood Industrial Park off of State Road 121 has performed tests on hundreds of beef samples sent by U.S. food manufacturers. The samples include meat produced for U.S. consumption. Manufacturers with divisions in Europe also have sent in samples from Europe.
None of the tests has come back positive for horse meat, Rosskopf said.
She said she does not know the results of tests using the kits the business has sold overseas.
“The thing that I'm really happy about with this is that it seems that a lot of the bigger retailers and manufacturers are being very proactive and looking for testing options and getting testing options in place before they're even told they have to,” she said.
On Friday, Taco Bell became the latest restaurant chain to acknowledge that horse meat was found in its beef as it pulled products from three British outlets and issued an apology to customers.
Nestle, Burger King, Tesco, Birds Eye, Findus and Ikea, among others, have had to remove beef products tainted with horse meat.
Authorities say the fraudulent labeling poses no health risk, but the scandal has drawn attention to complex and obscure supply chains for meat products.
Poland acknowledged Wednesday that it is a source of horse meat in processed beef after finding traces of horse DNA in samples from three meat processors.
A French wholesaler at the epicenter of the scandal announced that day that it had filed for bankruptcy protection after it was forced to shut down temporarily.
Although the tainted meat has not been found in the U.S., Rosskopf said U.S. companies are hurt by lower beef sales.
Frozen hamburger sales dropped 43 percent in the United Kingdom.
ELISA Technologies initially developed the horse test for the U.S. Department of Agriculture using the established ELISA method -- which stands for enzyme linked immonusorbent assay -- that already had been developed for other species.
The test adds antibodies and enzymes to a meat sample that attach to antigens produced by a species' immune system, said Eunseon Park, a test director. If the chemical mix finds the antigen for that species, it changes color, green in the case of horse test.
The lab charges $75 to analyze each sample, compared with more than $200 for a DNA analysis. The kits cost $550 each and can test as many as 25 samples.
Bruce Ritter, a food scientist and pharmacist who grew up on a farm, founded ELISA Technologies in 1991 to produce meat test kits for the USDA.
A 1994 study conducted by ELISA found that 25 percent of samples labeled ground beef by grocery stores contained some quantity of poultry, pork or sheep.
The company also makes kits and does lab tests of food allergens for the food industry and makes the EZ Gluten home test kit.
ELISA Technologies has 11 employees.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.