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Monitoring meat texture to optimize slicing yield and reduce wasted meat in high-speed slicing lines

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SLICEWATCH (Monitoring meat texture to optimize slicing yield and reduce wasted meat in high-speed slicing lines)

Reporting period: 2017-08-01 to 2018-10-31

The meat processing industry is an important sector, generating an annual turnover of $360b worldwide, including €160.6b in the EU-28, and is forecasted to grow at a rate of 14% per annum over the next years. This positive outlook is associated with a growing consumer demand for processed ready-to-eat sliced meat products, particularly in small package forms, which helps to prevent spoilage and are more convenient for the consumer. In line with this trend, the production of sliced meat products has steadily increased over recent years, and meat processing companies have made significant investments in the installation of slicing rooms. For example, in Spain sliced meat products already account for 80% of the total market value of meat products commercialized through supermarkets and hypermarkets.
Slicing costs are substantial, accounting for about 37% of the final product cost. A significant part of this cost is associated to meat wasted during slicing, which depends on the performance of the machinery and on meat texture. The presence of textural defects, particularly soft textures and holes, results in broken slices during high-speed cutting, which are either wasted or used to produce low-value products.
Textural defects in meat may be due to a poor optimization of the production process. However, more often they are related to the presence of “Pale Soft Exudative” (PSE) meat in the process. This type of meat is characterized by a low capacity to retain water and a low binding capacity of meat tissues, resulting in soft and dry textures that persist even after processing (cooking or curing), and freezing. As a result, when PSE meat is sliced at high speed (up to several hundred slices per minute), meat tissue is fragmented rather than cut, resulting in the generation of meat waste, either in the form of small fragments or broken slices.
Even if PSE meat is not sliced, it severely affects the quality of the resulting products, for which also in this case it is desirable to establish appropriate procedures to detect, sort, and process PSE meat.
The development of the PSE defect depends on complex genetic, nutritional and animal management factors which are very difficult to control. As a consequence, meat processors must cope with the presence of PSE meat in their processes. Presently, there is not any effective solution to avoid the impact that PSE meat has on their production yield, and on the quality of their products.
In the frame of the European Project SLICEWATCH we have developed a non-invasive solution to detect textural defects. This innovative solution is implemented in the form of an industrial scanner, which allows scanning meat parts on a piece by piece basis, at scanning rates of up to 600 pieces per hour.
In the frame of the project SliceWatch, we have developed an industrial solution to assess meat texture in a non-invasive way, and on a piece-by-piece basis. The scanner developed proves the electrical properties of meat at different frequencies. Since meat texture and characteristics of meat tissue affects how the electrical current flows in meat, the electrical parameters obtained can be used to assess meat texture, and to detect PSE meat. A key advantage of the SliceWatch solution is that it uses electromagnetic waves to evaluate meat properties, rather than contact probes. This has several advantages in terms of robustness, sensitivity and speed of analysis, and avoids as well the eventual risk of cross-contamination between pieces.
To optimise the operation of the SliceWatch solution, several steps have been taken. First, we optimised the measuring system of the scanner, and worked on maximising the sensitivity and speed of operation. Based on this design, we produced to demonstrators that were tested at two production plants (dry-cured ham and cooked ham). In parallel, we thoroughly investigated the relationship between meat texture and its electrical properties, and established mathematical models to predict meat texture. The developed models were found to be extremely accurate in discriminating meat with poor texture (PSE meat).
In a final phase of the Project, the demonstrators were exhaustively tested at meat processing plants. The tests performed show that the SliceWatch solution can be used to effectively detect PSE meat.
The SliceWatch solution was presented under the commercial brand “Ham-Inspector ” in the International Fair “FOODTECH” (Barcelona, 2019). This technology has allowed us to expand our product line of meat inspection solutions, and to offer customers a complete set of tools to assess most important meat quality parameters (weight, fat content, salt content, and meat texture).
In terms of communication of the project results, several actions have been undertaken, including the presentation of a poster contribution to the Dry-cured ham World Congress (Toledo, 2017), and the participation to several sectorial meetings and technical workshops. Moreover, a project website has been developed, which is available at www.slicewatch.eu.
Currently there are no commercial on-line solutions to accurately detect PSE meat. Most relevant alternative technologies/methods are based on the use of automated systems integrating invasive probes. In the case of pH probes, these systems are only effective for detecting PSE during the first three hours post-mortem of the animal. In practice, these pH measuring systems are difficult to integrate and automate at slaughterhouses, and have poor accuracy when used by meat processors at 24-48 postmortem. Other types of probes based on electrical conductivity, and optical reflectance, offer limited performance due to the large number of false positives (up to 95%). More importantly, invasive probes provide very limited robustness during industrial operation due to the wear of the probes.
As a solution to the need for monitoring meat texture, we have developed a non-invasive technology for meat inspection. SLICEWATCH solution will allow end-user meat processors to reduce production costs associated with meat waste, and line stoppages. This will be accomplished by sorting meat pieces based on their textural properties, and by selecting those suitable for the production of sliced meat products. The remaining fraction to the production of products less sensitive to meat texture. Typically, PSE meat can be grounded and dedicated to the production of sausages or burger meat. Alternatively, they can be treated with chemical additives, and used in the production of lower quality products.
SLICEWATCH will significantly improve process yield, reduce meat waste, prevent operational problems due to slicing machine down-time and line stoppages, and improve the quality of the final product. The presence of PSE meat in the process is a major and growing concern for meat producers, as revealed by the fact that the incidence of PSE meat in the production lines at Spain is as high as one third of the production.
SLICEWATCH will also bring substantial environmental benefits by reducing the generation of meat waste, and by developing more sustainable meat production processes. While pigmeat is the most consumed meat in Europe and is an important source of protein, pig farming has a strong environmental impact. Annually, the production of the meat wasted during slicing is associated with the emission of 350m of CO2e, the consumption of 400 Hm3of water, and 446 GW·h of energy.
Cured ham obtained from PSE meat.
Presentation of SliceWatch solution at FoodTech Fair (Barcelona, 2018)
PSE meat in a ham, presenting characteristic pale appearance and soft texture
Cooked product obtained from a ham with textural defects PSE).
Side view of the SliceWatch scanner
Fragmented slice obtained after processing a ham affected by PSE defects
SliceWatch scanner, integrated at a meat processing plant
Detail of fresh meat with PSE problems.
Broken slice of cooked ham product obtained from PSE meat.
Deboned fresh ham presenting textural defects (circled in yellow)
Front view of the SliceWatch scanner
Front view of the SliceWatch scanner
Integration of the SliceWatch demonstrators at production line.