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Statement on Clear Labs Report: “Under the Microscope”
Mandy Carr Johnson, Ph.D.
Sr. Executive Director, Science & Product Solutions
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff
The Clear Labs report offers very little insight into the safety or production of ground meat products or “how we can strengthen the good and improve the bad,” as they claim in the report. In fact, it confuses serious issues like food quality and safety and may unnecessarily alarm consumers and retail and foodservice operators with sensational statements about the presence of foreign DNA in meat samples. If you’re like me and you enjoy eating hamburgers, this report shouldn’t change that. You can still be as confident as you always have been about the safety and quality of your beef.
Ground meat safety protocols today focus on addressing contamination where it is most likely to occur and preventing live pathogens from entering the food supply. This is working, as evidenced by data from the Centers for Disease Control, which shows that our beef supply is very safe and is getting safer. We firmly believe that is because we have focused our food safety efforts on working collaboratively within the industry to invest in research and identify challenges and opportunities that can help us continuously improve.
Whole genome sequencing is a technology that offers promise to the food industry, but it cannot be used alone to assess the quality or safety of a food product. We, along with researchers and other food industry experts, have been actively engaged in exploring how this technology can be appropriately used in the future. However, at this time, it cannot be used in isolation to reach the conclusions outlined in the report or make improvements in the production of ground meat products. Detecting the presence of DNA from pathogenic bacteria does not mean that live pathogenic bacteria are present in the product nor does it indicate where the bacterial DNA originated.
The presence of DNA is like a fingerprint indicating that the product may have come into contact with meat from another species at some point during processing, handling or even while Clear Labs was collecting, storing in their refrigerators, and testing the samples. Since the same equipment is often used to grind meat of various species at further processors or retail – like pork, turkey and chicken – DNA from those species could come into contact with ground beef, and vice versa. While cleaning equipment will remove all visible signs of ground meat and kill live bacteria, it is virtually impossible to remove every microscopic trace of DNA from a surface or equipment.
As for the presence of human DNA, the human body sheds 30,000 to 40,000 skin cells every minute. These cells, called keratinocytes, are made of keratin, a hard substance that also forms your hair and nails. Keratinocytes form several layers that constantly grow outwards as the exterior cells die and flake off. The detection of a single one of these cells could result in finding human DNA in a sample, so it is easy to see how ground meat could come into contact with human DNA from workers throughout the production chain – from the processing plant to the grocery store or restaurant, or even by one of Clear Lab’s employees while collecting and testing the samples.