The 2019 AgResearch Meat Technology Workshop held in mid-March on the Ruakura campus in Hamilton was both the end of an era for New Zealand meat research and also the start of a new one.
The fact was marked with a toast from current AgResearch science impact leader for meat and bio-based products, Dr Cameron Craigie, and sector manager food and fibre, Dr Li Day, at the event’s ever-popular barbecue. Conversation ranged around a variety of meat research topics, especially meat quality, which had been covered by the wide range of speakers.
Sixty-four years of meat research at Ruakura
Delving back into the AgResearch archives shows meat research has been centred at Ruakura for 64 years, ever since the Meat Industry Research Institute of New Zealand (MIRINZ) was established in 1955, as an independent research association charged with improving the quality of New Zealand’s sheepmeat. Prior to that much research had been carried out in the UK, where many of the owners of the meat companies at that time were based. Research began, but its laboratories on the site were not opened until 4 March 1961.
The first two conferences were held in 1958/1959 in Wellington, then moved to the new facilities on the Ruakura campus in 1961. Teams worked on projects in meat science, mechanical engineering and works services (which later became refrigeration and energy ‘R&E’) amongst others. Over the years, MIRINZ grew in capability and reputation to become one of the world’s leading meat research organisations.
MIRINZ director Doug Wright (1987-1992) said the co-operation of meat companies played a major role in converting scientific information into technology that could be used in processing plants. “Their various contributions include working alongside MIRINZ staff, allocating space and manpower to test ideas, identifying problems needing research solutions and providing funds to support the Institute.”
The five years he spent as director were: “The most satisfying and interesting of my more than 40 years in science,” he wrote.
MIRINZ (and later AgResearch MIRINZ) produced a range of publications for reference by meat processors and meat technologists. These included technical reports (internally referred to as “blue backs”, which were distributed to MIRINZ members); confidential reports for work carried out for industry-only and not for general distribution; bulletins: one to two-page topical summaries of reported projects; and annual reports as required by government and funders. Its scientists have presented meat research at conferences all around the world.
Funding was received from various sources, including government and the meat industry until 1999 when funding changes saw AgResearch buy the food research business from MIRINZ. The MIRINZ brand, now owned by AgResearch, continued to be used for a number of years after that point. The money from the sale was invested in a new R&D vehicle for the meat industry called MIRINZ Inc. This is jointly-owned by the MIA and B+LNZ and continued to invest in research until around 2016, when the funds were exhausted. MIA Innovation is now the meat industry’s collaborative R&D arm.
It was at Ruakura that many new technologies involved with meat tenderness – including the “game-changing” accelerated conditioning and ageing of carcases developed by a team including young Dr Carrick Devine who is still around at the final Workshop – the innovative mechanical dressing of carcases and vacuum and CAP-Tech packaging were developed.
In the development of vacuum and CAP-Tech packaging, temperature control was found to be critical for long shelf-life. “This has ensured New Zealand chilled meat is of a very high quality,” he says.
Devine’s handy timeline of meat quality discoveries including:
- Meat was great in 1880s – our first shipment of frozen meat was a success
- After WWII greater production meant blast freezing lamb caused it to become tough (beef not so bad)
- 1963 The reason was found to be the effect of muscle shortening discovered by Locker from MIRINZ
- This led to temperature control in chillers late 1960s for special markets before freezing
- Electrical stimulation (high voltage) introduced for lamb late 1970s
- Beef followed perfunctorily with low voltage stimulation – its movement production spurred incorporation
- Processes involving stimulation and ageing, termed AC&A, introduced as a specification in 1989 – meat was genuinely sold on known quality
- Hot boning of beef occurred 1980s onwards, but meat was only good for manufacturing (“slash and pack”) – now we can electrically stimulate and wrap, so meat is tender
- Mid-1980s special packaging/temperature control for lamb and beef (vacuum-packaging, controlled atmosphere packaging, ‘CAP Tech’, for exported chilled cuts
- 1986 – Muslim World League accepted prior head-only electrical stunning for Halal
- Stress reduction shown to improve tenderness mid 1990s – animals could be conditioned to stressors
- High pre-rigor temperatures inhibiting tenderisation discovered late 1990s
- Mid-2000s it was shown this inhibition did not occur after electrical stimulation. It can always be tender
- 2008 – now the development of NIR to measure meat tenderness on-line (and being re-investigated)
- Early-2000s showed tenderness development was accompanied by drip
- Drip appearing early was shown not to be a consequence of high temperatures but occurred because meat tenderised faster
- Electrical stimulation demonstrated to prevent toughness in tropical breeds 2007-2011
- Electrical stimulation always ensures more tender meat and this meat reaches a higher degree of tenderisation than unstimulated meat
- New approaches to health and uncovering myths
- What in 2019?
Culmination of over 50 years of research
Former AgResearch research engineer Robert Kemp was involved in the organisation of the current AgResearch meat industry workshops from the first one in 2005 up until 2016, alongside food technologist Mustafa Farouk, Devine, Rob Archibald and others. Preferring to be behind-the-scenes,” organising stuff and making sure things run smoothly,” Kemp is pleased to see that, after all these years, AgResearch Ltd, AgResearch’s meat-process-related research team and the processing industry are still finding these workshops of value and they remain popular.
“Research and development is essential and good, applicable R&D requires both researcher and industry input,” Kemp says.
Rob Archibald, currently a consultant with Novel Projects and a former general manager of Taranaki Bioextracts Ltd and MIRINZ scientist, notes the evolution of the research from 20 years ago when most of the work was based at MIRINZ.
“We’ve got good research going on at the companies, at AgResearch and other companies like CarneTech and Scott Technologies,” he says. “But I do think at times we miss the critical mass of researchers that was the old MIRINZ.”
His passion is to see more value being extracted from the sector’s product stream.
“I think there’s a big gap there. I’m keen to see a continuation of the work on added-value products, particularly in the low-value cuts and by-products from what is often considered as waste streams,” he says.
Carrick Devine commented at the final workshop that the material presented was the “culmination of over 50 years of research.”
Congratulating the speakers on covering areas such as flavour, meat quality and emerging technologies, he said: “No-one in those days believed we could reach a stage where tenderness was not an issue in 2019. That does not mean that our meat is always tender, but rather that we now can do it by controlling things.
“The real trouble is that we don’t know that meat which does not meet a standard,” said Devine.
“As Cameron said, now we are developing the technology to measure meat quality online. While we really can do this, it needs the co-operation of the industry to achieve procedures that would be recognised and incorporated into the wider industry and not be a curiosity.”
Devine believes the meat industry is “on the cusp of great things, but they don’t know it,” he says. “My concern is also that they do not know what is possible.”
To make sure past knowledge can be incorporated into today’s work, he is working with Kumar Verathanium on modelling and with Dr Cameron Craigie and Mark Loeffen of Delytics NZ Ltd.
New chapter ahead
While not forgetting its past, the sector is now entering an entirely new chapter with new technologies – like robotics, artificial intelligence, blockchain and all the emerging biotechnologies and investigative techniques – for meat scientists, working in concert with meat companies, to wield in the changing world ahead.
Modern communication methods mean meat research can take place seamlessly across a number of research centres, involving colleagues from a wide range of disciplines.
“The new era of multidisciplinary food research is much broader than meat and co-products – food science must interact with constantly evolving food production, processing and consumption systems in an ever-changing world,” explains Craigie.
“Food science is about people and preferences. There is no doubt that functional meat products and ingredients that meet the needs and expectations of discerning consumers are more sought-after now than ever before, but there is work to do to enable the food industry to capitalise on this opportunity”
We’ll look forward to hearing about the next steps in progress at next year’s workshop. That will bring together experts from the different areas of research to Palmerston North and then will alternate annually with the Lincoln AgResearch Hub.
You can read more in:
- ’50 Years of Research and Recreation at Ruakura’, 1989, edited by John Scott, published by MAFTech North, Ruakura
- MIRINZ history.
- Copies of presentations to AgResearch MIRINZ Workshops 2006-2011 can be found here.
If you have memories to share, let us know.