Retailers will soon be able to distinguish almost instantly between beef and horsemeat in products, thanks to a bench-top device built by British engineers.

Oxford Instruments and the Institute of Food Research have developed a machine that can identify meat before it is processed. Earlier this year, food retailers were badly hit by a scandal when horse meat was found in beef products.

The technology can distinguish between fatty acids from horses, cows, geese, pigs and sheep. It is also being developed to recognise rat meat.

"Each fat gives off a different signal," said Paul Bunting, sales director at Oxford Instruments. "The great advantage of this is that rather than spending £500 to send off meat for DNA-testing and waiting up to a week for the result, they can use this and get results in minutes."

Mr Bunting added that he has started to talks with all of the country's biggest supermarkets. Mid-size retailers currently spend up to £1m a year on sending samples for testing.