Eating quality – the forgotten end of the supply chain

JSR’s director of meat science, Caroline Mitchell, who also heads the JSR Food Quality Centre, says it’s time to start thinking more about the eating quality if we want to attract more consumers to porkThe pork industry has spent the past 25 years striving to grow lean pigs efficiently. Leanness has become more important as we have looked to reduce our fat intake. Processors penalise producers for high levels of fat, and the consumer buys on weight, so doesn’t want to pay for excess fat either. Efficiency makes sound commercial and environmental sense, and makes our businesses more profitable.

So, all is well in the sector? Well, not quite. What about taste? For those of us who are old enough to remember, pork just doesn’t seem to taste as good as it used to. And the reason for this is quite simple; taste, or more precisely, eating quality, is the forgotten end of the supply chain.

The consequence of striving for lean, efficient growth is that we’re now producing lean, muscular pigs that, all too often, are poor to eat. As a result, consumers are being short-changed and this is dangerous for the industry in the long-term. If consumers don’t enjoy the pork they eat, they’ll buy it less frequently. It really is as simple as that, and it’s why we’ve been investing heavily in meat eating quality at JSR.

It’s a fair observation that taste is subjective and that we all taste things differently. And if that’s the case, how can it possibly be measured objectively and analysed scientifically in order for it to be reproduced consistently? However, the truth is that taste, which is a key component of eating quality, can be measured with scientific rigour, and the JSR Food Quality Centre has been established to do exactly that.

The overall quality of meat can be determined by six key factors: technical quality, nutritional quality, hygiene quality, ethical quality, and visual and eating quality. And the eating quality of meat can be broken down into four key components: appearance, tenderness, juiciness and taste. Each of these can be measured scientifically.

At the Food Quality Centre we carry out our tests using state-of-the-art equipment. For example, to determine tenderness, we use the Tenderscot that allows us to subjectively measure “rapid slice shear force” to replicate cutting the meat on a plate; the Mirinz Compression Bite Test to replicate human bite and the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force, an alternative cutting method.

We also use a mechanical means of measuring colour, to determine how the meat will look on the shelf to the shopper, and last, but not least, since some meats have better ability to hold water, which results in less shrinkage and greater succulence, we carefully measure cooking and drip loss.

Trained tasters
Mechanical testing, however, only takes you so far. Food, after all, is consumed by people, so their views count. That’s why we have recruited and trained our specialist JSR taste panel. The selection criteria are stringent, and just 3% of those who apply will make the grade.

We select panel members according to strict ISO standards. We measure their ability to detect colour, smell and texture, and to describe what they taste and smell using the correct vocabulary. We also measure the accuracy of their palate.

Those who make the grade are invited to train to become panel members. They study previous published work to enable them to describe taste and our methods and processes are carefully explained. Standard training courses at the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing provide useful information that can be passed on to the panelists.

All of this ensures that we achieve the most accurate description of taste quality we possibly can. Today our panel is 16-strong and is made up of people from all walks of life, including those with food sector experience and those with none. All are highly trained “tasters” who make an invaluable contribution to our work.

This means we can now offer three types of taste panel analysis at the JSR Food Quality Centre:

  • Rapid Test – quick and cost-effective to benchmark a product with easy analysis. This is ideal for companies that want to know how their product compares to competitors.
  • Detailed Test and Analysis – scientifically more rigorous using Genstat statistical analysis. This is for companies looking for product comparisons that they can use in business and publish in promotional information.
  • Consumer Taste Panel – to provide written and verbal feedback reflecting a cross section of consumer opinion and perception.

In addition, our team can provide a comprehensive range of services for supply chain optimisation and management, as well as offering advice on welfare and production in livestock systems. The project team has undertaken project work in processing, packaging, retail and display.

Pork lessons
As you might expect, the Food Quality Centre has worked extensively on meat, especially pork. The key thing to understand is that delivering eating quality requires a co-ordinated team effort, across the supply chain. Of course it starts with the genetics, and we have been feeding back what we have learned into the JSR genetic improvement programme to ensure that the products we supply to farms will produce meat that is truly “fit for fork”.

For example, we know that the RN gene in the Hampshire breed leads to increased tenderness, yet most breeding companies market their lines as being RN-free because some research shows that it saves on yield loss at the abattoir. We know how to prevent the yield loss, and where appropriate we’re selecting in favour of the RN-gene, as well as for slightly more intramuscular fat, to improve overall flavour.

Eating quality is, however, also determined by the producer, the processor and of course the cook! At the production stage, feeding, stocking density, management, handling and transportation can all have a huge impact on the final eating quality. There are, however, a number of myths to challenge in this sphere.

For example, our research clearly contradicts the idea that outdoor pigs are always happier and will automatically produce higher-quality meat. This simply isn’t the case. What is true is that meat of the highest quality comes from pigs that have been bred in high-welfare systems that reduce stress, be they indoor or outdoor. Stress must therefore be objectively assessed by measuring, for example, pH, blood lactate levels and lung lesions.

It’s also wrong to assume that “slowly grown” will result in better meat. Our research shows that pigs that have reached their target weight quickly and evenly will, in fact, taste better.

Processing and packaging
When it comes to processing, maturation, hanging, chilling, slaughter, lairage and packaging all have a huge impact on ultimate eating quality. The good news is that there are a range of small, inexpensive changes that can be made that will have a huge impact on quality. These include avoiding overnight lairage to reduce stress, and making sure that blast chilling is optimised to reduce cold shortening of muscle.

Ultimately, however, we can get all of the above right and produce a superb piece of meat that’s then ruined by the cook. The final myth to challenge is that pork should only ever be served “well done”, with cooking instructions often resulting in an internal temperature in excess of 85C when 71C for whole muscle is closer to the ideal. Our courses at the Yorkshire Wolds Cookery School emphasise this point. We must work together with retailers to explain this to our consumers. They’ll enjoy their pork all the more for it.

This, of course, brings us back to the start. If consumers enjoy their pork, they’ll come back for more. We therefore ignore eating quality at our peril.

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Who uses the JSR Food Quality Centre?

One UK producer that has utilised the Food Quality Centre’s services is Blythburgh Free Range Pork, based in Suffolk. Meat eating quality is intrinsic to Blythburgh’s business model and supply chain. The company runs an extensive free-range outdoor production system and wanted scientific evidence to support its claim of high meat-eating quality.

“We analysed their supply chains and audited the meat for pale, soft, exudative (PSE) and dark, firm, dry (DFD) meat, which would show any issues,” Caroline Mitchell says. “Neither were detected. We also compared their product with competitors and supermarket supply chain products. We found a very sound supply chain and they were able to use this to market their pork.”

Alastair Butler, who runs Blythburgh Free Range Pork with his father, Jimmy, believes the work of the JSR Food Quality Centre can help bring the meat eating quality of pork under the spotlight.

“The assessments of our products carried out by JSR reinforced our beliefs that our pork has a high eating quality,” he said. “It gave us peace of mind that we didn’t have to change anything – our supply chain and our genetics are excellent.

“Research and testing, such as this, is vital not only for individual producers, processors and retailers, but for the industry as a whole. British pork doesn’t have a great image. We eat 50% less pork than that consumed in other European countries, such as Germany. If trained taste panels and scientific evidence can prove that pork has a superior taste quality, it may change consumer buying habits in our favour.”

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