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How Can Isotope Testing Help Fight Livestock Theft?

The end of the trail for food fraud is the consumer’s shopping basket – or a lab! – but what about the start?

Livestock smuggling is one of the many ways that food fraud can take root. In the UK, sheep are especially targeted for theft – in 2015, 3,091 sheep were stolen at a cost of around £122,000 to farmers. In 2017, by June, the number of sheep stolen reached 2,228.

Many rustled sheep will end up in the illegal meat trade almost immediately after being stolen. As well as the meat coming from unknown sources, welfare and hygiene standards cannot be verified from meat sold illegally. Other sheep may have their identities changed in order to pass them off as coming from a different farm, and then are processed with fraudulent credentials.

In September, a farmer in Cheshire discovered 178 of her pigs had been stolen from her farm. Like the sheep, the pigs are likely to have been sold directly to an illegal meat supplier, or have had their identification removed or altered.

As well as sheep and pigs, a huge number of Northern Irish cattle have been reported as lost or stolen in three years, many from across the border areas. As with sheep rustling, the thefts are thought to be carried out by criminal gangs who then change the identification of the cattle and then smuggle them into factories in the Republic of Ireland. So far, over 10,000 cattle are considered lost or stolen in three years.

Livestock theft is a rural crime that is hard to prevent, since the actual thefts are often carried out at night, and can take place in fields a few miles away from the farms. With many rural police stations closing due to cuts, reporting the crimes is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers.

So far, in terms of traceability, farmers in North Yorkshire are trialling a system that encodes sheep fleeces and coats with thousands of microdots containing forensic evidence on the farm of origin. A database will then broadcast any thefts to auction marts, the police, and abattoirs. However, with the microdots in the coats of the sheep, any sheep that have already been slaughtered and packaged may not be identifiable.

It’s clear that livestock theft needs to be stopped and consumers must be protected against any mislabelled or illegal meat.

Identifying where the meat comes from once the stolen animal has been slaughtered can be a difficult task, and the solution may lie at a chemical level.

Isotope testing compares isotope ratios against a reference database to establish whether or not the meat is from its declared origin. As well as being able to identify country of origin for pork, poultry and beef, Agroisolab is currently interested in expanding its databases in order to offer more localised results should any meat fall under suspicion, or even just for suppliers to verify where their meat is from.

Isotope testing provides a reliable verification method for many products, including organic verification. Agroisolab is happy to offer a deal on one-for-one testing – a free sample tested in exchange for a reference sample. This limited offer is available until the 1st of January, and is available to new customers.

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