Tough love for low value meat cuts

Members of the sous-vide project team, left to right are: Mike Boland, Mustafa Farouk, Jonathan Cos, Phil Bremer, Pat Silcock, Amali Alahakoon and Clara Bah.

Food scientists in New Zealand are giving tough meat the love it deserves in a bid to add value for the red meat sector.

Finding ways to enhance the tenderness of the toughest of New Zealand cuts of meat represents a substantial opportunity for the industry. With 40 percent of meat from the carcase sold at under $8 per kg, there is potential to add extra revenue for the $5.5 billion red meat sector of up to $20 million a year by 2024, AgResearch calculated in its project proposal.

The crown research institute is one of four research partners in a meat tenderisation project, one of 10 currently underway in the $16.7 million Food Industry Enabling Technologies (FIET) programme. The other partners are Massey University, the Riddet Institute and the University of Otago.

Post-doctoral research Clara Bah, gave a presentation at the AgResearch Meat Industry Workshop in March on two techniques the team is exploring to tenderise very tough cuts of meat. These are sous-vide, a method of cooking in heat-stable vacuum pouches commonly used by chefs in restaurant kitchens, and pulsed electric field (PEF) processing. The potential of each is being investigated separately as well as their combined use, she explained.

Sous-vide produces moist, tender, tasty and nutritious dishes in pouches, quite often using the tougher meat cuts, ready for reheating quickly at home in water baths or the microwave. However, it has some disadvantages, including the lengthy processing time, ensuring microbiological stability and the fact that it has not yet been scaled up and proven on an industrial scale.

PEF is a non-thermal processing technology which applies high voltage electric pulses in very fast bursts to a sample.

“PEF makes tiny holes in the meat, allowing enzymes to enter and help with tenderness,” Bah told the Workshop participants, adding that research is looking to see if PEF could help reduce sous-vide cooking times.

The team visits Fire & Ice Sous Vide in Hastings. From left to right are: Nina Yang (intern) Clara Bah, John Bronlund, Maryanne Pirie, Mike Boland and Lovedeep Kaur. Fire and Ice is one of at least two sous-vide manufacturers in New Zealand and produces a range of sous-vide products for its own label, Sue Feed, and also for other customers. Owner Mark O’Regan claims his research has shown that the methodology he uses has enabled a chilled shelf-life of 49 days, with a further two years if frozen down at the end of the period. He recently sent some products off for microbiological testing. “The oldest of the product tested was made on 12 September 12. I got the results back on 6 April and they showed little to no microbiological growth. That's approximately 170 days, How's that for adding value to New Zealand meat?” he asks.
The team of food scientists also visited Fire & Ice Sous Vide in Hastings. From left to right are: Nina Yang (intern), Clara Bah, John Bronlund, Maryanne Pirie, Mike Boland and Lovedeep Kaur. Fire and Ice is one of at least two sous-vide manufacturers in New Zealand and produces a range of sous-vide products for its own label, Sue Feed, and also for other customers. Owner Mark O’Regan claims his research has shown that the methodology he uses has enabled a chilled shelf-life of 49 days, with a further two years if frozen down at the end of the period. He recently sent some products off for microbiological testing. “The oldest of the product tested was made on 12 September 12. I got the results back on 6 April and they showed little to no microbiological growth. That’s approximately 170 days, How’s that for adding value to New Zealand meat?” he asks.

Mike Boland, principal scientist for the Riddet Institute, updated the recent NZIFST conference on the latest progress being made by the team (a copy of his abstract is available at the NZIFST conference webpage). The toughest beef and lamb cuts have been chosen for the project, he noted. “Because, if we can’t do it on those, then it’s not worth doing.”

Scaling up to industrial quantities, managing to get the best quality meat product and achieving the optimum microbiological levels is a challenge, “But it’s doable,” says Boland, adding he believes sous vide is close to being picked up and run with by meat industry partners.

“There has been a lot of interest in the project and it wouldn’t take much to push it to the next level,” he says.

The literature has already been reviewed. A University of Otago PhD student has completed the first year of a three year PhD, which has included initial trials with PEF on topside, and a PhD student from Massey University is just about to start work on sous-vide.

Industry advisors are in place – Jonathan Cox ANZCO Foods’ commercialisation manager, Gemma Milne from Alliance Group and Mark O’Regan, owner of Hawke’s Bay Company Fire & Ice Sous-Vide. In addition, two Ministry for Primary Industries advisors, Helen Withers and Lisa Olsen, have joined the team to ensure appropriate food safety and regulatory guidelines are met. Monthly project meetings are already underway to push work along and preliminary sensory trials have also been undertaken at AgResearch.

The team of food scientists visited ANZCO’s Waitara plant in January 2016 and in May went along to the Fire and Ice factory in Hastings.

“The FIET Meat Tenderisation programme is delving into some truly novel meat processing technologies,” says Cox. “Success of this programme would significantly improve the return for New Zealand on otherwise lower value, tough meat cuts.”

The FIET programme aims to fill the gaps in technology which are limiting export returns achievable by New Zealand’s commercial food processing companies. Other FIET projects of relevance to the meat industry are looking at meat liquefaction, along with controlled pyrolysis for smoking meats and other foods.

This article appeared in Food NZ magazine (August/September 2016) and is reproduced here with permission.

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