Meat tenderness, flavour and quality.
The factors that influence meat quality are well known, but the degree to which each factor has an influence, both independently and in combination with each other, is less well understood. It is often suggested that meat from rare breed animals or native breeds such as Aberdeen Angus or Hereford is superior in flavour to commercial counterparts. However, it is often the case that such animals are also reared on extensive grazing systems where pasture forms a significant part of the diet. So is flavour a consequence of genetics, nurture or a combination of both?
We also know that the age of animals is a significant factor. Meat from younger animals is generally tender and needs less (if any) hanging to improve texture but older animals are often associated with much fuller flavour.
As part of our research work, the PFLA is collecting practical information from our farmers about the animals on their farms, including breeds, gender and the nature, management and performance of their pastures. We are combining this with feedback from customers to gain a better understanding of how we can best produce tender and tasty meat from pasture managed to Pasture-Fed standards.
Meat from the hindquarters is made up of the larger muscle groups, with less cartilage and connective tissue and as a result is more tender. Meat with the fat deposited within the steak to create a 'marbled' appearance has always been regarded as more tender than steaks where the fat is in a layer around the outside.
Other factors also play an important role in influencing tenderness. Stress before slaughter leads to a build up of adrenaline within the meat. Aging or "hanging" the meat between slaughter and being cut up into joints can significantly improve the flavour, allowing the effects of any adrenaline to be dispersed. Sensitive handling during transportation and at the abattoir can greatly reduce the stress experienced by the animal, with a beneficial effect not only on the animal’s welfare, but also on the quality of the meat. This is why we encourage our producers to visit the abattoirs before sending any cattle for slaughter and to ensure that the animals are treated as well after they leave the farm as they have experienced throughout their lives.
A recent review of scientific literature by Bristol University (1) came to the following conclusions:
- Flavour is an increasingly important aspect of the eating quality of beef.
- Flavour variation is not as large as that of tenderness, but is significant and controllable.
- Flavour is influenced by many factors in production and processing. The main factors are:
- Diet, especially the source of fat and the levels of antioxidants
- Pre-slaughter stress. Chronic stress causes off-flavours.
- Gender, the flavour of meat from bulls is generally poorer flavour and can contain strong taints in meat from older animals.
- Fat level. High levels of fat are not necessary for a full flavour but low levels may induce fat oxidation that can impair flavour.
- Conditioning. Ageing in vacuum packs avoids fat oxidation and weight loss but benefits of dry ageing have been reported.
- Packaging. The oxygen atmosphere in the pack is crucial for optimum colour and flavour development. Too much oxygen in the pack promotes lipid oxidation and off-flavours.
- Marinades. Although no substitute for attention to detail in production and processing, Marinades can improve both the flavour and the tenderness of meat
(1) Wood, J.D. and Richardson, R.I. 2004. Factors affecting flavour in beef. University of Bristol, Division of Farm Animal Science.
A full text of the report can be found at:
The review by Bristol University demonstrates the need for further work. In particular, there is little research on the influence of a Pasture-Fed diet on meat characteristics with US and UK studies appearing to give contradictory findings. However, all of the research to date appears to have been based on diets of grazed ryegrass or ryegrass silage, which doesn’t represent the diversity in plant life that we advocate in a Pasture-Fed diet, especially the inclusion of clover and a range of herbs.
Sharing experience and feedback between PFLA members is proving to be a valuable resource and there are some factors affecting taste and quality about which we have a good understanding and which our farmers are already putting into practice: