Eating quality is one of the key aspects that influences consumers meat buying decisions. Consequently, it is important that red meat is delivered to the consumer in a fashion that promotes good, consistent eating quality and encourages consumers to come back for more.
The feeding and finishing of livestock, together with other aspects of animal management such as genetics, animal health and handling, are critical links in the eating quality chain. Producers, lot feeders and intensive finishers should be mindful of how feeding and finishing influence eating quality and implement systems that maximise eating quality potential.
Glycogen and pH
Every animal has a certain amount of energy contained in its muscles in the form of glycogen. Once the animal has died, the muscle glycogen is converted to lactic acid that causes the pH to fall.
If there is not enough glycogen available in the animal at the time of slaughter, insufficient lactic acid will be produced and the pH will remain high, resulting in dark cutting meat. The main point to consider is that adequate glycogen levels need to be maintained to deliver the ultimate pH required for eating quality.
If the concentration of glycogen falls below a threshold concentration because of poor nutrition or other factors such as poor handling and stress, the pH of the resulting meat becomes higher than normal and will result in high pH and potentially dark cutting.
Dark cutting meat is characterised by a darker colour, coarse texture, inferior flavour, reduced shelf life and can be associated with reduced tenderness. At the retail level, consumers are likely to reject this meat on the basis of appearance and dark cutting is estimated to cost the industry around $36 million per year.
The most effective way to minimise the risk of high pH and dark cutting meat and to standardise eating quality is to ensure high levels of muscle glycogen at the point of slaughter. This is achieved by maximising the amount of stored glycogen in the lead up to slaughter through appropriate feeding and minimising potential drains on that glycogen by minimising stress.
Feeding and finishing
Well planned feeding and finishing systems that produce animals that are in good condition and actively gaining weight are the best way to ensure high muscle glycogen levels. These systems also allow the animals condition to be monitored and the animal to be turned off to meet precise market specifications – further adding to the eating quality experience.
Minimising drains on glycogen
While feeding and finishing is important in maximising muscle glycogen levels, other factors also play a role in maintaining those levels. Glycogen is used in times of heightened exertion or stress and potential drains on glycogen, such as may occur during mustering, handling, mixing (socialisation) and trucking, should be minimised.
Marbling is the intramuscular fat which appears as fine flecks within the muscle. The presence of marbling has a very positive effect on the eating quality of some cuts provided that other factors, such as handling, are well managed. One of the eating quality factors that marbling influences is tenderness.
The level of marbling is influenced by genetics and EBVs now exist for IMF (intramuscular fat).
The tenderness and flavour of beef, lamb, sheepmeat and goatmeat are major influences of eating quality and are dictated by a variety of factors including:
- cooking length
- cooking method
- quality assurance systems on and off-farm
Meat Standards Australia (MSA) is a beef, lamb and sheepmeat eating quality program that removes the need for consumers to have specialist knowledge of beef and sheepmeat. MSA labels the red meat product with a guaranteed grade and recommended cooking method to identify eating quality according to consumer perceptions.
- Meat Standards Australia has extensive information regarding meat eating quality grading and labelling.