Red meat meals from vending machines?

03 June 2016

Robots which work collaboratively with people, hot lamb curries from vending machines and 3D-printed meat – could this be the red meat industry of the future?

It’s actually already happening, according to Darryl Heidke and Chris Ruberg, MLA’s R&D Program Managers for Supply Chain Technology.

Darryl and Chris have just returned from the global trade exhibition for meat processing, IFFA and a study tour through Europe to map emerging technology, trends and systems for value-adding red meat.

It paves the way for the creation of a Value Chain Technology Centre of Excellence in 2016 supported by the MLA Donor Company (which doesn’t use producer levies). This will act as a brains trust of global ‘thought leaders’ and technology partners to secure the future of innovation in Australia’s red meat value chain.

Darryl said the trip reinforced the world leading innovation already in place in Australian red meat processing, especially in terms of automated boning and objective carcase measurement technology, both highly successful recent MDC programs.

“Most of the automation in European processing plants was for logistics, such as robots handling pallets of packed product. This is because there is a lot less variation in carcase size in the main processing sector of pork compared to red meat processing in Australia," he said.

"As a result, we are definitely ahead of the game in terms of sensing technology and automation to manage product variation.”

However, Chris said the real ‘wow’ factor from IFFA was the realisation that Australia’s program in automated meat processing integrated with highly advanced subsurface sensing (such as DEXA) is leading the world.

“We are head and shoulders ahead of the world in this area now, which is anticipated to deliver strong benefit to producers in the form of a more competitive processing chain, and much more accurate producer feedback on livestock processing performance," he said.

Meat in the future

Darryl said the innovations and trends on show included 3D printing using ‘ink’ made from emulsions from different meats which cooks as it is piped onto a hot plate,  along with the latest developments in packaging, sensing and measurement technologies, value-adding processes, and automated robotic  processing.

“This 3D printing may seem like futuristic technology but it is already being used in Europe to create high-end, designer meals,” he said.

“There could be potential to use a red meat ‘ink’, to value-add lower value cuts although more research needs to be done in this space.”

Darryl and Chris were also impressed by demonstrations of collaborative robots. Unlike large industrial robots, these small, nimble machines are designed to work alongside humans in manufacturing or processing. They could be used in red meat processing to make value chain efficiency gains which could flow back to producers.

Australia on show

Australian-led innovation in red meat processing was also on show at IFFA. As well as the BladeStop technology, visitors at the trade show were among the first to sample pre-cooked Australian lamb ready meals from vending machines, a new and novel supply chain.

This concept is the brain-child of Australian value-adding company Frews, supported by the MLA Donor Company. The vending machines can heat single-serve meals such as lamb meatballs in Massaman curry in just two minutes and will be trialled this year at railway stations and universities in Melbourne, Europe and the Middle East.

The vending machines not only value-add secondary cuts and provide convenient meals to time-poor consumers, but create a new opportunity for Australian lamb in the face of volume restrictions into the EU (which apply to frozen but not cooked product). The vending machines also collect point of sale information and potentially consumer feedback.

“The vending machines received a really good response at IFFA,” Darryl said.

“I tried a few of the meals too – they were of good quality and tasty.”

Consumer trends

These vending machines align with an emerging trend in the UK and Europe of retail-ready meals.

“The retail ready market in Europe is significantly different to what we see in Australia. Consumer trends have paved the way for premium retail-ready, individual serve meals. As well as meat dishes, consumers can buy pre-packaged serves of vegetables or fruit," Darryl said.

“These products attract a higher price point due to their individual nature and freshness – in London they were priced at three meals for £10. Presentation is important. Packaging clearly identifies protein, carbohydrate and fat levels in response to healthy eating trends.”


The study tour and "global technology scanning" was coordinated by MLA included representatives from the red meat processing industry, MLA and the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC).

It was funded using AMPC processor levies matched with MDC funds. It included:

  • visiting the Cambridge University Centre of Manufacturing Innovation
  • visiting retail outlets in London to review retail packaging and consumer trends
  • supporting 10 Australian processors to attend the leading triennial global trade exhibition for meat processing, IFFA
  • visiting red meat processing plants and technology organisations in Denmark and Italy.

The week-long IFFA exhibition is held in Frankfurt, Germany, every three years. This year, it featured more than 1,000 exhibitors and attracted 63,000 visitors from around 142 countries.

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