THE early stages of a three-year research project looking at meat colour suggests that colour issues may be costing the Australian red meat industry $500 million each year – not the $75 million previous thought.
In the first year of the three-year strategic project, researchers from CSIRO Food and Nutrition surveyed 15 red meat processors across the country to assess the real cost of dark meat colour.
“The annual cost was previously thought to be around $75 million,” muscle biochemist Joanne Hughes, who is completing her PhD on the project said.
“However the survey showed dark-cutting beef could in fact cost the industry up to $500 million a year,” she said.
Dark-cutting is the term used for meat that does not bloom or brighten when it is cut and exposed to air. It is generally caused by pre-slaughter factors (on-farm or during transport or lairage), and can be costly to the supply chain.
Carcases are downgraded if they fail to meet colour compliance criteria (such as for Meat Standards Australia grading), causing economic loss to processors and producers.
Consumers perceive the bright red colour of normal fresh or packaged meat as indicating freshness, so dark meat is associated with reduced shelf life, resulting in lost value for processors, producers and retailers.
Project leader Dr Aarti Tobin, from CSIRO Food and Nutrition, said the red colour of fresh meat was caused by the pigment (mainly myoglobin) and the reflectance of light, which appears as brightness.
Previous meat colour research has focused on factors affecting pigmentation, but Dr Tobin said this project took a novel approach to the role of muscle structure.
When structural changes occur to muscle during rigor mortis, it impacts the light scattering and therefore the colour of meat, she said.
Researchers found that reducing the pH of muscle fibres reduced muscle fibre width, and increased meat brightness, whereas high pH levels increased fibre widths and decreased brightness.
“The message for the processing industry is that, in addition to myoglobin, muscle structure also has an impact on meat colour. Our trials show that altering pH impacts on muscle structure, which in turn affects light scattering, and therefore the perception of meat brightness or colour,” Dr Tobin said.
“The challenge is for processors to promote the best possible structure in muscle to achieve optimum meat colour, so CSIRO and AMPC are working with the processing industry to find solutions that are market-focused,” she said.
Electrical stimulation is used to manage carcase colour and eating quality, but over-stimulation can lead to deterioration in sensory attributes. So the research project is assessing other post-mortem intervention strategies that can be used by processors to optimise the structure of the muscle and meat colour without compromising eating quality.
Cost-benefit analysis tool
As different interventions will suit different processing companies, the project has developed a cost-benefit analysis tool so processors can evaluate which strategy best suits their business.
For example, processing plants with sufficient chiller space might hold carcases for longer periods between slaughter and grading. This prospect was discussed in this earlier meat colour story on Beef Central.
“Our research shows there is an 8pc incidence of dark-cutting when a carcase is graded 15 hours after slaughter,” Ms Hughes said. “Extending the time between slaughter and grading to 30 hours reduces the chance of dark meat colour to 3pc.”
She said the aim was to allow full rigor to occur before grading, so the muscle reached its final or ultimate pH, and colour was stabilised.
The project could underpin the development of a predictive model for processors to assess if a carcase would be cut dark, at final grading.
“It’s about giving processors more control about how they handle carcases to promote favourable meat colour and maintain product value,” Dr Tobin said.
Australian Meat Processor Corporation chief executive David Lind said the project had the potential to “offer a transformative solution to the meat industry.”
AMPC is co-funding the project, which not only offers potential to reduce the estimated $500 million annual industry cost accrued through dark meat colour, but also to enhance retail acceptability and improve eating quality, as very dark meat can have variable tenderness.
New technologies for colour assessment continue to emerge
Speaking at Tuesday’s MLA annual general meeting and industry forum in Brisbane, MLA’s Dr Alex Ball provided details of the raft of new objective assessment technologies now under assessment.
I’m confident that we can now do objective carcase measurement for most of the major attributes that we measure carcases on.
A previously unseen example was a recently-developed hand-held device called a Nix, developed originally as a paint or print colour matching technology.
“I get excited when we play around with a DEXA camera, or a CT scan unit, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Dr Ball said. “But equally, I get really excited when we find some piece of new technology like this that is quite unique, and much, much cheaper.”
“The Nix device fits in the palm of your hand. It costs $500 Australian, or US$350. We can now put that into an abattoir, or a wholesale or retail environment, and take objective measurements of meat colour that describe 80 percent of the variation in meat colour that consumers see. And we can do that for $500,” Dr Ball said.
“And like all new technologies, it does not come with an instruction manual: you download an App onto your iPad to operate it.”
“This is the space that these new technologies are starting to fill. We did not know this thing existed until two or three months ago. We’ve now calibrated it for red meat colour assessment across 8000 consumers, and seven different muscle groups. We now know we can accurately describe consumer perceptions of meat colour more accurately than we did before – and it has a nice correlation with the colour chips as used in AusMeat carcase assessment.”
The Nix website describes the device as a breakthrough smartphone accessory. “Just scan any object and instantly view the colour on your iPhone, Android, PC, or Mac,” it says.
“Nix is a patent pending device that allows anyone to become a color expert. Just grab Nix from your pocket, purse, or bag, touch it to an object (i.e. a meat sample) and magically watch the exact colour appear on your iPhone or Android Phone (with Bluetooth 4.0 / BLE). Once scanned, you can keep palettes of your favourite colours, match the colour to real-life sample pigments, and even receive directions to the nearest store where you can purchase the colour,” the website says.
“Nix is perfect for interior designers, graphic designers, model makers, makeup artists, hobbyists, photographers, fine artists, crafters, hackers, makers, museum curators, painters, landlords, and even… engineers…”
- Beef Central is working on a separate article looking at research into domestic Australian consumer perceptions about meat colour, which could have some big implications for carcase eligibility for Meat Standards Australia and domestic and export brand programs. Stay tuned.