A pioneering research project to determine the eating quality of meat is moving closer to commercial reality with the successful testing of a robot at a Scottish meat processing premises.
Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Government are co–funding the ground-breaking Integrated Measurement of Eating Quality (IMEQ) project, which is being delivered by a consortium of partners, led by SAC.
The three-year project, due for completion in spring 2013, is using cutting edge automated technology to determine carcass pH and temperature using surface-based ultrasound probes located at different positions on the carcass.
The technology also uses automatic means of measuring meat colour, carcase fat and eating and nutritional qualities. These measures are being integrated with a video image analysis (VIA) system, resulting in a new process for use on the line in abattoirs.
In the future, this could lead to the development of a system which is faster, less labour-intensive, less expensive and delivers new information.
The initial focus of the project is on beef, with the aim to extend the technology to lamb and pork at a later date. Central to the research is the use of robotic technology similar to that utilised by the high precision motor industry.
A robotic manipulator, with special end-of-arm tools, is being used to provide automated measurements at line speed at the meat plant. The camera scans the carcass allowing the robot to place the pH/temperature probe into the target muscle in the half-carcass on-line.
A number of pH/temperature electrodes have been evaluated and a suitable, robust probe has been selected for the end of arm tool on the robot. This has been combined with an ultrasound probe which allows automatic, rapid measurement of subcutaneous fat.
Meat eating quality is being assessed through the use of novel imaging technologies which use spectroscopic methods to determine the texture and composition of the meat. Already the technology is showing that it may be possible to select out the tough meat.
Success in the IMEQ project could offer a range of benefits to the entire red meat industry. In particular, the ability to offer consumers a consistently high quality product is of major importance since current approaches based on standard protocols and ageing times cannot remove variability.
The entire red meat chain is on course to benefit from this ground-breaking project. The red meat industry could benefit by up to £5 million a year, based on current prices and throughput levels, as a result of added revenue and efficiency gains generated by the future commercialisation of this type of automated approach.
Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said: “Scotland is renowned as a land of food and drink thanks, largely, to our fine natural ingredients, including quality meat that graces dinner tables across the world.
“It’s great news, therefore, that our investment in securing a viable future for the beef sector in Scotland is being rewarded. The IMEQ system will help to give the consumer confidence that the meat they purchase will meet their expectations on both quality and taste - a winning combination.”
Professor Charlotte Maltin, Science and Innovation Manager with Quality Meat Scotland, said: "The ability of the robotic manipulator to work effectively at line speed is crucial to the success of this project and we are delighted this is proving possible in a practical working environment”.
Dave Ross, Senior Research Engineer, Sustainable Livestock Systems Group, SAC said: “A priority since moving the robot onto the processing line has been looking closely at the technical robustness and intelligent autonomy of the system.
“The automation system and sensors are now being used successfully in a real-time environment to assess the overall performance of the system in measuring meat and carcass quality related parameters. The project is moving into a validation trial phase through the remainder of 2012 and early 2013.