Technology Tackles Variability
Variability in quality characteristics, such as tenderness and muscle color, is greatest in beef, where most of the attention to dealing with it has been directed. "One way to reduce variation is to follow a series of careful steps during production and processing, so that at every 'critical point' the right decision is made. This is basically the approach taken by our major processors, which specify factors such as animal age, carcase fat, and conformation class, the use of enhancement procedures during processing, such as electrical stimulation and aging time, and the type of packaging used," says Jeff Wood, Professor of Food Animal Science at Bristol University (Meat Trades Journal, 18 February 2011).
He described another approach, which was developed in Australia for beef and lamb: the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) grading system involves "putting several pieces of information on the animal and carcase together and predicting an MSA eating quality grade. For beef this information includes breed type - for example zebu or temperate breed - bone ossification (an indicator of age), marbling fat score, muscle pH, and rib fat thickness. Scores are also given to individual muscles and these are retailed according to eating quality score," states Jeff Wood.
He described a third approach to sorting out variation, which is on-line measurement of meat quality, in which context Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR) has received much attention. In NIR infrared illumination is directed on the muscle cross-section - for example, at the 10th rib - and interprets the reflected signals. These change according to the water and fat content of muscles, which could tell us something about toughness. Professor Wood describes slow progress with NIR, both in Europe and the USA, but "it offers the potential of an objective test for tenderness. The approach is currently being pursued in several meat quality labs around the world".
VEGA notes the extensive use of ultrasound in assessing the limbs of animals, live or dead, for quality and lack of pain, in the limbs. Such methods are applied, albeit slowly - painfully slowly - one might say, in people; an expert butcher can assess pre-slaughter stress by the signs in the flesh and the effects attributable to procedures before and during the killing. Such information is collected and should be collated for potential buyers of the meat and animal welfarists looking for signs of rough treatment and copious release of hormones in the stresses linked to methods of slaughter. Human consumers may also assess the pain and aches they suffer in comparable conditions.