Meat DNA testing can help save species
African governments need to boost local efforts to protect endangered species by supporting DNA testing, argues Linda Nordling.
The horsemeat scandal that recently hit Europe has shown how DNA testing can improve food monitoring and safety.
Most African countries are yet to adopt the technology despite its huge potential - both in ensuring that food is correctly labelled and in policing the illegal trade in animal products.
Foreign-funded projects are already introducing the concept to Africa. But local buy-in, especially from governments and law enforcement agents, will be critical to harnessing the technology for the good of African people and wildlife.
One thing is clear: cheating with meat labelling is not limited to Europe. South Africans got a wake-up call when scientists last month published a study conducted in 2012 showing that 68 per cent of 139 processed meat products from shops and butcheries in the country contained species that were not declared on the label. Pork and chicken were the most commonly detected 'surprise' meats in the samples, but the scientists also found traces of donkey, goat and water buffalo in the mince, burger patties and sausages under scrutiny.
The findings could pose a challenge to the country's meat industry similar to the one Europe faces. Many South Africans don't eat pork on religious and health grounds. Certain animal species - horses, for instance - are routinely treated with veterinary drugs that can harm humans.
Beating the bushmeat trade
But with rising food prices hitting Africa's poor, some people may not mind a bit of donkey in their burger if it is affordable. Perhaps a more urgent challenge for DNA analysis in the continent is to curb the rampant illegal trade in meat and products such as horn from endangered animals.
The bushmeat trade threatens many species. In Central and West Africa, this includes primates such as gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. In Madagascar, rare lemurs are killed for their meat.
This not only depletes Africa's jungles and savannahs of their iconic biodiversity. It also increases the risk of diseases jumping from animals to humans. Large African primates can carry the Ebola virus, and scientists believe that HIV first arose in humans handling primate meat carrying simian immunodeficiency viruses, the non-human version of the virus.
Throughout Africa, rhino populations are being destroyed as demand grows for the ground-up horn that people in parts of Asia believe cure disease. More than 1100 rhinos have been poached so far this year in South Africa alone.
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Meat image via Shutterstock.