A new packaging/forming technology making its debut at the recent National Retail Innovation Expo offers a range of opportunities for value-adding companies to improve the eating performance and presentation of many lesser-value cuts.
The SmartShape/SmartStretch technology captured the imagination of many beef program managers attending the Expo, who could see a range of possibilities using the system.
Developed by Meat and Livestock Australia’s Product Innovation division, the SmartShape technology is used for primal and sub-primal shaping, particular in areas like improving the consistency of shape of beef used in portion-control work.
The machine itself acts like a ‘boa-constrictor’ pulling the raw material down and forcing it to adopt the sleeve profile. Sleeve diameters can be dialled-up to suit different raw material.
One of the big challenges when providing portions for large-scale food service work is inconsistency in size and shape of portion serves from one end of a given muscle to the other.
This can have impact on serve-size, how evenly each piece is cooked, waste and other issues.
The product going through the SmartShape treatment produces portion serves which are remarkably consistent in shape, dimension and appearance. Importantly, it also retains its shape when portioned.
With the industry-wide push on to extract optimum value from each individual cut, MLA’s project manager, product innovation, David Carew, said the SmartShape technology could be applied to improve a range of secondary cuts. Examples included butt tenders, rost biff, chucks, bolar blades and topsides – all of which could be improved using the system. It could also be used to form items like bonded tenderloin pieces.
T&R early adopter
One of the early adopters interested in the technology is Thomas Farms, a division of processors, T&R Pastoral.
Queensland commercial manager for T&R’s Country Fresh wholesale division, Jonathan Bayes, said a commercial trial was being undertaken by Thomas Farms, with applications seen for both beef and lamb – although the range of cuts suitable for use with lamb was more limited by their size.
Mr Bayes said the SmartShape system would be considered for application to a range of beef cuts from yearling and heavier steer lines, produced out of the company’s Murray Bridge plant in South Australia.
“For example we see a role in rost-biff, a sub-primal from the rump, which when put through the SmartShape technology emerges with a shape and dimension similar to a tenderloin,” he said.
For those readers not familiar with the food service term, rost-biff, it is derived from the D-Rump by removing the rump cap and denuding external fat. Rost-biff is made up of three major muscles, including the rump eye, rump centre and rump flap.
Thomas Farms’ processing plan is to sell the sleeved rost biff to wholesalers/portioners and hotel/restaurant chains, making it a lot easier for them to portion control cuts with very close weight tolerances.
“Producing a rost biff portion serve in a tenderloin shape has a number of attractions to large food service customers,” Mr Bayes said.
“It offers a much more manageable weight-range; it is much easier to cut consistent, even portions; and perhaps most importantly, when used as a thermo-sleeve, it allows it, if required, to be cooked whole, and then sliced for serving.”
This would promise not only to minimise moisture loss, but also to reduce clean-up.
“We see great potential to take a product like this into major customers like Lite-and-Easy (manufacturers of pre-prepared calorie-controlled meals), and Qantas airlines,” Mr Bayes said.
Cost-effective tenderloin alternative
While large food service operators like convention centres often used tenderloins, if they could use a formed rost biff that ate almost as well, there would be a lot of attractions, he said.
“But doing the job themselves – creating portions from cartons of raw material – would be prohibitive. By the time they broke the rump down to get an article like that, they would suffer a huge yield loss, both through denuding and portioning. There would also be a lot of labour involved.”
“But if we can do those steps in-plant, eliminating pH levels, portioned and ready to go, it reduces the handling and cost. There are lots of attractions.”
Thomas Farms is also looking at applying SmartShape to a new boneless denuded lamb shoulder product, which had equal attraction in shape consistency, and produced without the use of binders.
Mr Bayes said the technology could also have strong application in the Japanese export market. Japanese food service was already familiar with Australian log chubbs in minced form, and it was only a short step into muscle meat treated a similar way.
There could also be applications at retail. Thomas Farms plans to look at retail roasting in-bag portions, using bolar blades and topsides, cap-off. Marinade and flavourings in-bag could also be examined, for supermarket-type applications. The sleeve-bag itself could even be printed with markings indicating where to slice for an accurate 200 or 250 gram portion, or accurate cooking times/temperatures.
While the SmartShape sleeve offers some packaging protection, it is not a cryovac treatment, and for longer shelf-life or chilled storage applications, the sleeved material must be re-cryovaced in a ‘mother bag’ strategy.
While the first versions of the technology are single-feed machines which limits potential throughput, later versions now under development will have dual and multi-line feed capacity. Currently it takes about 35 seconds to feed and sleeve each item.
Potential tenderising effect
One of the more recent exciting developments with SmartShape is evidence that it may provide a tenderising benefit, in addition to its primary function of forming muscle meat into more desirable shape and dimension.
MSA sensory panel work is being used to determine how significant this effect might be, but if it proves to be significant, it obviously greatly enhances the system’s credentials as a means of boosting the performance of lesser cuts.
“To a small degree, it’s a little like tenderstretching a carcase, on a micro-scale,” Mr Bayes said. “But additionally, unlike tenderstretching, the rumps don’t come out all out-of-shape and proportion. It could be ideal for someone that does not tenderstretch to get the optimum eating performance out of the beef being used.”
“The system has a lot of attractions already, but if it can be proved to add a tenderising effect on muscles from the rump, for example, it would be a massive bonus,” Mr Bayes said.
“I think a lot of processors down the track will look very closely at it.”
Beef Central will get its first chance to see the SmartShape technology in operation during an MLA industry demonstration at Cannon Hill later this month. More pictures, video and reports after July 26. The video footage will appear in Beef Central’s multi-media section.