A new EU-funded project into fresh meat and the relationship between quality, shelf-life and packaging is examining the impact that product history and handling – as much as packaging systems – can have on shelf-life.
QualiMeat is an EU Interreg project bringing together German and Austrian partners, including the Management Center Innsbruck (MCI), Austria, and equipment specialist Multivac. The three-year project has funding of €1M (£850,000).
Multivac application specialist Matthias Schwartz said: “One important topic is the difference that the starting material makes: what kind of meat gets as far as the packaging process. The slaughtering, butchery and animal husbandry all have a huge influence on the quality and shelf-life of the end product.”
In other words, a reliable method of evaluating the quality of meat before the packing stage might be as useful a tool inpredicting shelf-life as independent validation of the packaging process.
“After packaging, we don’t exactly know the microbial count on the meat,” said Schwartz. “This is heavily influenced by the whole process, starting with the livestock and ending with the temperature of the consumer’s fridge.”
As part of the project, the MCI will use invasive methods, including wet chemical and separation technologies, to evaluate interactions between packaging materials and product quality.
Another partner will use non-invasive methods, such as near infrared and Raman spectroscopy, to gauge product quality.
Of course, this is not to discount the very important role played by multi-faceted packaging systems. But part of the challenge could be the different objectives of those systems.
For example, the shelf-life of red meat will often be defined both by microbial spoilage and colour change.
“There are ways of maintaining the colour of fresh meat with modified atmosphere [packaging – MAP], using high-oxygen atmosphere to maintain the red colour and carbon dioxide to prolong the shelf-life due to antimicrobial effects,” said Schwartz.
Some research suggests that oxygen might adversely influence meat quality. But on the other hand, consumers tend not to buy brown meat that has not been kept in a high-oxygen atmosphere. And if the intention is to exclude oxygen, a highgas-barrier film will still be required.
“I don’t think there are limitations with existing materials,” said Schwartz. “It’s more about using the right film for the right application, and better understanding the interactions between films and products.”
Those interactions have become more critical since the industry began to develop ovenable film packaging for poultry and red meat, including ovenable skin packs.
In fact, the consortium has still not finalised which materials and packaging processes it will examine. “Since a large part of the meat market uses MAP in trays, traysealers will have an important part to play,” says Schwartz.