A recently-completed research project, jointly funded by the Scottish Government and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), has established that meat quality measurement techniques and high-tech robotic equipment can successfully be used at line-speed in a commercial abattoir environment.
As well as confirming the potential for the development of future abattoir systems which are less labour-intensive and deliver new information to assist marketing strategies, the findings of the three-year Integrated Measurement of Eating Quality (IMEQ) project have opened the door for the commercialisation of a number of new technologies.
The research project, was delivered by a consortium of partners, led by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). The practical trial period of the £950k project was undertaken at Scotbeef’s Bridge of Allan premises which has one of the fastest line speeds in the UK. This phase was completed in summer 2013 and, following several months of collation and interpretation of the data, the full results have now been finalised.
Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead said: “It’s critical to the future success and viability of Scotland’s red meat supply chain that our livestock farmers and processors fully embrace all the advantages that new technologies and innovative practices have to offer. The outcomes of this project offer a range of opportunities to keep the Scottish red meat sector in the very vanguard of 21st Century meat processing and I am delighted that our funding has delivered such a broad range of science based options to achieve this.”
Jim McLaren, Chairman of Quality Meat Scotland, said: “This research project was a major investment by QMS and the Scottish Government to investigate the potential of cutting-edge technology, including the use of robotics similar to those utilised by the high precision motor industry, never before tested in a working abattoir.
“The project has delivered first class results and shown it is possible to create integrated systems to assess carcass and meat eating quality under abattoir conditions. It has also highlighted the scope for imaging technology to allow the industry to move towards a carcase payment system based on yield of superior eating quality meat. It is very important this is accompanied by strong feedback of information on carcass quality to producers.”
Mr McLaren added that it was encouraging to see several of the technologies evaluated are already being progressed to commercial realities.
“The project has given us an exciting insight into the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ potential of this sort of technology and the role it could play in ensuring the efficiency and profitability of our primary processors.
“However, in order for our processors to be able to invest in this sort of industry-leading technology - which our competitors around the globe also have an eye on - it is vital that the industry in Scotland has the critical mass of raw product it needs to operate profitably.
“It is essential that our beef and sheep producers take every opportunity available to them to improve the efficiency and profitability of their businesses and QMS has a range of initiatives underway to assist them to do so. One priority is to develop a better flow of communication between abattoirs and farmers.”
The IMEQ project has also delivered a wide range of new information on the implementation, automation, functionality and accuracy of the range of technologies which were tested.
One significant success was that it was clearly established that a robot could cope with the variations in size and shape of carcases and go to the same reference target in three dimensional space to position the sampling probe.
A world-first outcome of the project was the successful integration of ultrasonic fat depth prediction with the Video Image Analysis (VIA) system to better predict the EUROP classifications. It was also proven in trials that the VIA system can very accurately predict the saleable meat yield of carcasses, producing a result less than an hour after slaughter.
Another highlight was the development of a semi-autonomous pH processing system which can gather and log data automatically and has the potential to extend semi-automatic monitoring of pH at varying time-points post-mortem. This system has been very well-received by the industry and is currently being developed by a commercial partner, Peacock Technology Ltd, with a view to marketing this to the industry in 2014.
A novel ultrasound sensor-based software system was developed which automatically predicted fat depth when it made contact with the carcass. This was incorporated with VIA measures to obtain a higher accuracy of prediction of carcass fatness classification than VIA system alone. On the back of this work a new ultrasound system is also being commercially developed through partner BCF Technology Ltd, and will be offered as an accessory software option, initially for their “Easiscan” live animal systems.
To develop a next generation VIA system, a high resolution camera was tested and, for the first time, was shown to work robustly and more accurately determine fat classification, under abattoir conditions during the IMEQ trials. This new camera system will soon be ready to go on the market as an option to use with new VIA systems.
Advanced spectroscopic techniques were used in meat eating quality trials. These showed the ability to estimate both sensory (tenderness, juiciness and flavour) and nutritional properties (improving human health) of meat, and perform this with techniques that are demonstrated to be capable for on-line implementation in the abattoir. These technologies are fast and have the potential to be implemented on a robotic system in future.
The project was led for Scotland’s Rural College by Professor Rainer Roehe and managed by Dave Ross of SRUC’s Research Division. Professor Roehe said: “We are proud to have achieved the successful development and test of an integrated system of techniques to predict all important carcass and meat quality criteria under hugely challenging commercial abattoir conditions – particularly as the line-speed of the Scotbeef abattoir at Bridge of Allan is one of the fastest in the UK.
“We are very much indebted to the owners and staff for all their support throughout that part of the project. We are excited at the prospect of these project technologies and results being implemented in future by the industry.”
The full report on the IMEQ project can be viewed at http://www.sruc.ac.uk/imeq