A fascinating day was spent by MeatExportNZ at AgResearch Ruakura, recently, surrounded by the hum of meat innovation and enthusiastic researchers, all passionate about their work.
The team of 20 AgResearch scientists associated with meat research, located at the Ruakura Campus in Hamilton alongside Palmerston North, Lincoln University and Invermay, is led by 35-year-old Dr Cameron Craigie, AgResearch’s science impact leader for meat products and supply. He and his family will shortly physically relocate to Christchurch to be near his work at the CRI’s Lincoln University Hub, but will continue in the same role, remaining firmly part of the food and bio-based products group and the food assurance and meat quality team.
The former University of Otago student graduated with a first class honours in genetics 2005, followed it up with a BCom in business management and a little later a PhD in animal science from Massey University/Scotland’s Rural College. An integral part of his work at AgResearch involves building key research and development linkages across the red meat value chain.
He says the team works tightly together on different projects even though they may not necessarily be on the same site. Scientific collaboration is enabled online and through video conferencing, as well as face-to-face meetings. Microbiologist Dr Gale Brightwell, science team leader for food assurance and meat quality is based at Palmerston North and is a key member of the design team behind the new joint Food Science Centre on Massey University’s Mānawatu Campus. She is working there alongside senior meat scientists Drs Marlon Reis, Adrian Cookson, Carolina Realini and John Mills.
Craigie says the meat scientists also work closely with teams in Australia at CSIRO and Meat & Livestock Australia as researchers have found they face similar problems.
“Pooling resources in common areas avoids duplication of work and allows us to cover more ground collaboratively,” he explains.
From working with Australian colleagues, and other teams around the world, Craigie says he was surprised to find the AgResearch meat research team is one of the largest in the world embedded within an organisation covering soil microbes through to human gut microbes and everything in between. Currently, 65 studies out of the 700-odd AgResearch are currently involved with, are meat-related.
A quick wander around the labs revealed scientists engaged in projects adding value to New Zealand’s meat products, including these three projects.
New Zealand first: dry-ageing lamb
In the Ruakura processing plant, master butcher Kevin Taukiri was working with food technologist Mustafa Farouk and PhD student Frank Zhang on cutting lamb legs into smaller portions to suit modern households, ready for dry-ageing. This is the first attempt, they believed, to dry-age New Zealand lamb commercially, though studies took place on lamb in Australia in 2016.
“Dry-ageing is usually an artisanal craft around the world and one carried out on beef. We’re working out how to do it on lamb in a way that might be taken up commercially,” explains Farouk.
The carcases of one hundred lambs that had been processed at Alliance Lorneville were sent to AgResearch Invermay for CT scanning in readiness for the trial.
Using information the team had gained from a recent successful AgResearch trial on dry-aged lean beef, the legs were vacuum-packed in a water permeable bag. This enables moisture to pass out of the packaging, but oxygen only to pass in to the meat to assist the aerobic maturation. These are then placed into test drying cabinets, developed by former AgResearch engineer Robert Kemp, in a 2°C centigrade chiller. This can be operated from the outside for humidity, temperature and air flow, with fanned air moving around the test cabinets at a rate of 0.5 metres per second. They will be in there for a total of 21 days.
Once the work has been done on the technical aspects of dry-ageing the product, the team will move on to work on sensory evaluation, look at ways to reduce any spoilage bacteria, to improve yield to meet export criteria and to assess the likely costs involved.
Dr Santanu Deb-Choudhury, from the protein and bio-materials team based at AgResearch’s Lincoln campus, will also investigate the protein modifications that take place during dry-ageing and cooking that underpin the product’s unique flavour profile.
“Eventually, we are hoping to engage a chef who will use the product, placing it on the menu for a day to see how diners like it,” says Farouk.
It was day two of a seven-day project for MIA Innovation looking at lamb colour and shelf-life. In a cabinet fitted with retail-type lighting, samples of lamb steaks from male and female lambs were being compared over a to find out how the colour changes in store over a week and whether the animal’s gender has any effect on results. Loin chops from the exact same animals had also been dipped in metabolites to see how that affects the results.
“Our colleagues in the animal genomics team at AgResearch Invermay will integrate these results into sheep breeding programmes to enable farmers to breed sheep to produce meat with improved colour stability” notes Cameron.
New Zealand’s own air-dried beef
New Zealand may soon have its own cured beef deli product if Farouk gets his way. The AgResearch meat scientist and PhD student Frank Zhang have been working on developing beef and experimenting with different flavour profiles for an air-dried spiced beef that is closest in style to an Italian Bresaola but produced using New Zealand’s own bull beef and unique flavour profiles.
An eye of the round beef cut was coated in a number of different combinations of spices, including turmeric, oregano, garlic and ginger, marinated for a week, then air-dried for 2.5 months. Finally, it was sliced so thinly you could almost see through it.
Plans are for the yet-to-be-named new product to be eventually produced in six different flavours.
I can testify the test results were all delicious!