A key scourge of the meat industry – dark meat – could be improved thanks to research by CSIRO scientist, Joanne Hughes, awarded on Tuesday at the ABARES Outlook 2016 conference in Canberra.
Ms Hughes, a muscle biochemist at CSIRO Food and Nutrition, won the red meat processing category of the Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, for her work on dark meat.
The award is sponsored by the Australian Meat Processor Corporation and will provide the funding for Ms Hughes' project.
Meat colour is the primary method consumes use to judge the quality of meat. Rather than bright red meat colours, dark meat not only looks a 'less-fresh' darker red or purple, it can also have a shorter shelf-life, variable tenderness and an off-flavour.
Failure to comply with colour criteria downgrades carcasses dramatically and results in lost value for producers, processors, and retailers.
Dark meat, or dark cutting meat, is usually caused by undue stress on-farm or in transport and until now most methods for improving meat colour have focused on pre-slaughter interventions.
However, Ms Hughes and the team seek to use cutting-edge high pressure processing technology (HPP) under low temperatures to lighten the colour of high-value primal meat cuts.
HPP is also used to extend shelf-life, and retain nutrtion and flavours in a range of other food products.
"Sometimes people in the industry tell me that HPP on fresh meat generates a "cooked-like appearance, and meat goes brown in colour," Ms Hughes explains.
"However, this is not the case when using lower temperatures and pressures like we will be, So, using controlled conditions, we want to show that dark meat colours can be lightened with no adverse effects on eating quality,' she said.
By adopting this technology in their plants, meat processors could reduce carcass downgrading, improve the quality and colour of the product before it reaches supermarket shelves, and maximise carcass value for both the producer and processor.
"By improving the value of primals, such as the loin, we can help processors achieve a higher value for each carcass, in turn hopefully providing a solution to the dark meat colour problem."
Ms Hughes and the team also surveyed a number of meat processors, covering 43 per cent of the total cattle slaughtered, and found that dark meat could be costing the industry up to $500 million per year, or $1,000 per animal -much more than previous estimates.
‘Over the next five years, we aim to reduce this loss by 20% and save the beef meat industry alone up to $100 million per year,’ Ms Hughes said.
HPP machines can be expensive, but CSIRO have developed, in collaboration with Greenleaf Enterprises, a cost-benefit model to help processors determine the financial viability of adopting the technology.
Reducing the incidence of dark meat in the Australian industry will also ensure confidence in our product by export markets in Asia and elsewhere.