04.What affects eating quality
The overall eating quality of beef is largely out of consumers’ control. The best carcass can be reduced to low-quality, unacceptable meat from the two-week pre-slaughter period right up to the first few hours post-slaughter. Meat Standards Australia says the damage is mainly caused by changes in muscle glycogen (energy reserve); while feeding increases glycogen, stress rapidly reduces it. Keeping the cattle calm by reducing any stress factors (such as environmental factors) pre-slaughter helps keep glycogen levels high.
Some of the other major factors that Meat Standards Australia finds to affect eating quality include:
• pH levels The ideal pH range is between 5.30-5.70. Levels above 5.70 result in dark cutting meat (purple rather than bright red), coarse texture and reduced shelf life. When cooking, the meat tends to lose a lot of moisture, making it tough to eat. At the point of slaughter, muscle glycogen is converted to lactic acid, which decreases the pH. High energy (glycogen) levels in the cattle pre-slaughter will enable the pH to fall within the ideal range.
• Marbling is intramuscular fat appearing as small streaks of fat scattered throughout the muscle. This fat is the last to be deposited and first to be used by the animal as a primary energy source, so cattle must be on a high nutritional plane to keep the marbling throughout the meat. According to our experts, marbling helps make the meat tasty and tender; stress and fasting pre-slaughter will rapidly decrease the level of marbling.
• Hanging method during chilling The carcass can be hung by the Traditional method (Achilles tendon) or the tenderstretch method (suspended by the pelvis). The tenderstretch technique is said to improve the eating quality of many cuts in the hindquarter (such as rump and sirloin).
• Ageing occurs as the muscle fibres in meat break down and become weakened. The meat on aged beef is good eating quality and usually more tender. Meat is generally aged for 14 days (MSA requirements range from five to 35 days), after which time the amount of change is minimal. All our experts praise aged beef for its superior flavour and texture, but bear in mind it generally comes with a higher price tag.
• Hormone Growth Promotants (HGPs) are supplements of naturally occurring hormones used by some producers to help cattle meet market weight at an earlier age. They’re placed under the skin on the back of the ear of the cattle, releasing low doses of hormones. In general, marbling is reduced in treated cattle; MSA claims HGPs affect the eating quality of some cuts.
• Cooking methods also impact on eating quality. Muscles are made up of fibre groups surrounded and supported by connective tissue. The amount of connective tissue in a piece of meat is related to the amount and type of work that particular muscle has to do, which is why certain cuts of meat are more tender than others; blade muscles, for example, are constantly used and so have high connective tissue content. This type of meat is best for casseroles, as the slow cooking process helps to break down the connective tissue. By contrast, a muscle such as the fillet (tenderloin) does very little work with almost no connective tissue, resulting in a very tender piece of meat. In a casserole, the fillet’s structure would be completely broken down, so it is best suited to pan-frying or grilling.
Beef labelling legislation and Meat Standards Australia
New beef labelling legislation rolled out in New South Wales on 31 August aims to help consumers choose cuts of meat that are suited to their specific needs (see CHOICE, October 2010, page 4). Beef will be categorised based on age (yearling, young, intermediate, mature and economy), with the youngest cuts (yearling) warranting a premium price and the oldest cuts (economy) being least expensive. Unfortunately, these guidelines were developed by a beef industry committee with no consumer input or testing to make sure they are meaningful to those who need it most. Time will tell if this system really helps consumers. On the plus side, any claims such as “organic” or “grain fed” must now be accurate and substantiated, whereas under the previous system they were self-regulated.
By contrast, Meat Standards Australia (MSA) has developed a scientific, grading system that predicts the eating quality of a cut of steak. More than 80,000 consumers participated in MSA consumer testing, which covers more than 560,000 beef samples. The MSA score takes into consideration the tenderness, juiciness, flavour and overall liking of different cuts of meat to give one of three quality levels: MSA3 (tenderness guaranteed), MSA4 (premium tenderness) or MSA5 (supreme tenderness). The label includes the MSA grade, the cook method for best eating outcome as well as ageing information. The system also takes into consideration all factors that can affect the eating quality of meat, from paddock to plate. Producers need to be registered with MSA and their livestock need to meet the MSA pathway requirements to be eligible for an MSA grade.
To use the MSA trademark, meat brands, processors, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants must be trained and licensed. Each of the licences are third party audited. You can find a list of the licensed processors and wholesalers on the Meat & Livestock Australia website (www.mla.com.au).