In 2010, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) established the International Competence Center on Meat Quality (IKF) at the Max Rubner-Institut, Kulmbach. The task of this institution is to further develop the existing scientific expertise in terms of meat quality via national and international research projects. The economy shall be integrated – from primary production, slaughtering and processing plants to retailers – and the transfer of knowledge to all actors in the meat chain be forced.
Quality of meat and meat products
The overall quality of meat and meat products includes various quality aspects. Product and process quality have to be differentiated. Further categories result partly from the different viewpoints, e.g. from that of meat producer, hygienist, nutrition physiologist, technologist, animal rights activist, economist, ecologist and consumer. Based on these different aspects, projects are being initiated to analyse the resulting requirements, to identify appropriate and objectively controllable and measurable indicators, i.e. product and process parameters, and to develop practical, state-of-the-art analysis techniques and measuring methods which can be integrated in the process, including suitable control modules. The goal is the standardisation of both product properties and process parameters.
The quality of the meat is influenced by animal breed, growing and feeding, furthermore by husbandry and transport conditions, slaughter and cutting process, and the subsequent storage conditions. Important quality parameters are the sensory characteristics of meat like colour, texture and taste from the perspective of the consumer, pH, water activity (aw) and water holding capacity in terms of technological suitability, the microbial and physicochemical contamination for reasons of product safety and consumer protection, and the ratio of muscle tissue to fat.
Key process parameters are temperature, humidity and pressure; additionally, technical operations such as comminuting, cutting and mixing, forming and agglomerating, curing, drying, ripening and smoking etc. Finally, the various additives and ingredients, but also the packaging and storage of products affect the final quality of meat and meat products.
Criteria of animal welfare and sustainability of the production have to be considered as these topics are of high public concern.
Analysis and control of product and process parameters
A fundamental task of the International Competence Center on Meat Quality to continuously improve product quality, process flow and procedures is to run a vulnerability assessment in close cooperation with the industry, agrarian sector, meat production and processing companies etc. to identify potentials and to develop solutions in the frame of research projects.
Meat quality grading is based on EU meat grades, which describe quality characteristics such as preponderance of meat in cattle and lean meat content of pigs. It is essential here to develop more advanced methods to contribute to a standardisation within the EU. The work on required rapid methods should combine these factors with the assessment of the meat according to quality characteristics, such as tenderness or proportion of ingredients relevant for a healthy diet. Characteristic indicators, such as biochemical changes and their mechanisms, allow determining biochemical fingerprints that can be used as indicators for quality and process control.
It is necessary to improve existing scientific methods and techniques for objective measurement of intrinsic and extrinsic meat quality, and to develop new ones, which can be used in practice. For the work of the International Competence Center on Meat Quality it implies that, in addition to the known quality criteria for meat (colour and tenderness, pH and water holding capacity, chemical composition, etc.), biochemical quality markers are developed and established by applying modern methods of proteomics and metabolomics. All these efforts focus on beef, pork and poultry meat. The correlations of the biochemical markers with sensory, physical and chemical quality criteria are to be determined via bio-mathematical analysis. For an online collection of required data during the production process, the development of practical, efficient, rapid methods, e.g. with the help of spectral methods, electronic sensor technologies and low-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, should be aimed at.
For a holistic definition of quality, special attention should be given to the development of sustainability criteria in meat production and processing.
The IKF will participate in the development and maintenance of standard methods for determining quality criteria and, if necessary, participate in the coordination of methods on EU level. EU research projects provide a good framework for this.