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Understanding beef eating quality in Europe

Bonny, Sarah (2016) Understanding beef eating quality in Europe. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Variability in beef eating quality is seen as a major causative factor for the decline in beef consumption and value in Europe. Consumers have difficulty selecting beef of appropriate eating quality using price, visual appearance, and other information provided at the point of sale. With eating quality the biggest factor which influences a consumer’s decision to buy a product again, the future of the meat industry depends on the delivery of beef with a consistent and reliable eating quality. At present the Australian beef industry uses a revolutionary eating quality based grading system called MSA (Meat Standards Australia) to deliver an ‘eating quality guarantee’ to the consumer and financial incentives to producers to improve eating quality. This PhD investigated the suitability of a similarly constructed system for the European beef industry.

The European market currently trades beef carcasses based on the European carcass grading system. This system uses visual assessment processes to give a score for both muscling and fatness and is legally required for the purposes of price reporting. Its strong presence in the market has greatly influenced the development of the European beef industry, encouraging the production of heavily muscled, high yielding carcasses with moderate fat cover. In this thesis we have investigated any relationship between this system and eating quality, to determine both the effect of selection based on this system on eating quality and the potential usefulness in an eating quality based grading system. Through the grading and taste-testing of over 300 carcasses it was found that there was no substantial relationship between the European carcass grading system and eating quality. Therefore selection based on this system would not negatively impact eating quality, and the system could operate in parallel with an eating quality based grading system.

Entire male beef carcasses, bulls, are also important in the European beef industry due to their increased growth rates and higher yielding carcasses. In contrast, bulls are not an important part of Australian beef production and they are currently ineligible for grading in the Australian MSA system, though there are plans for their inclusion in the future. Additionally dairy breeds are often used for beef in Europe, due to the importance of the dairy industry. It is well known that sex and breed (beef v/s dairy) affects many aspects of a carcass which influence eating quality, such as intramuscular fat, carcass weight, yield, muscle fibre type, etc. This meant that for the development of a European eating quality based beef grading system it was important to determine if there was a sex effect on eating quality. From the results of this thesis it was found that carcass measurements used in the MSA system were unable to completely explain the differences in eating quality between the breeds and sexes, and a separate adjustment for bulls and dairy breeds was required for an eating quality grading system. Additionally, the differences between the sexes varied between muscles, highlighting the need for further work on some of the muscles with limited testing.

The European and Australian industries also vary in their estimation of animal maturity. As an animal matures there are age related decreases in eating quality, mostly associated with collagen crosslinking and some fibre type shifting. Australia, and the MSA system estimates this through a measure of bone maturity called ‘ossification’. The rate of ossification is influenced by the hormonal state of an animal, for example pregnancy, lactation, castration and the use of hormonal growth promotants. In contrast the European beef industry takes advantage of the accurate age records that are required for all production animals. The relationship of these two measures to maturity related decreases in eating quality is outlined in this thesis. Ossification score is a more appropriate measure for young animals, most likely due to its relationship with the hormonal state of the animal. However, as animals mature and reach the maximum ossification scores this measure loses sensitivity and animal age becomes more appropriate. Therefore a combination of both measures should be used in the grading of eating quality in Europe to fully encompass the diversity present in the industry.

Emerging technologies will make new testing and grading procedures possible in abattoirs. Biochemical attributes of beef have been shown to be related to eating quality, and have been tested using objective measures and trained consumer taste panels. However, they have never been tested with untrained consumers. The relationship between untrained consumer scores for beef and intramuscular fat, moisture content, heme iron content, and total, soluble and insoluble collagen is also explored in this thesis. Biochemical attributes explained the majority of the variation in consumer scores across different muscles, but not within individual muscles. Therefore the results from consumer analysis can be extrapolated to muscles with similar biochemical attributes; however biochemical testing would not add value to a commercial eating quality grading system.

The actual eating quality experienced by the consumer must match the designated quality grade for eating quality based grading system to achieve its aims of improving customer satisfaction and encouraging the production of quality beef. After exploring carcass and animal traits that influence eating quality, this thesis focuses on consumers and their ability to quantify beef eating quality. In particular it is concluded that there are no major demographic effects on consumer evaluation of eating quality, and willingness to pay. The relative importance of different sensory attributes to consumers is investigated with the conclusion that these are also remarkably consistent between diverse cultural groups.

These results demonstrate that a beef eating quality grading system, similar in design to the Australian MSA system, is highly applicable to both the European beef industry and the European consumer. Currently only small scale certification systems and branded products offer the European consumer any information on the expected eating quality of beef. A universal, European eating quality based grading system would improve the industry by simultaneously encouraging the production of high quality beef and providing a better and more consistent eating experience to the consumer. This would also increase the value of European beef, allowing the industry to command price increases of up to 200% for premium quality beef. Further work needs to be performed to exactly quantify the statistical model necessary for such a system.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Veterinary and Life Sciences
Supervisor(s): Hocquette, J-F, Pethick, David and Gardner, Graham
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