Robots on the production line establish meat quality standards

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Farmers, meat processors and red meat eaters will all benefit from a pioneering research project aimed at determining the eating quality of meat which is now coming to fruition, according to Jim McLaren, the chairman of Quality Meat Scotland.

The ground-breaking Integrated Measurement of Eating Quality project, currently under trial at the Scotbeef plant at Bridge of Allan, uses a range of high technology equipment that should take uncertainty and human error out of assessing meat quality.

Now, after two years of the £1 million project, the successful testing of the test robot linked into the line at the meat processing plant means that it is moving towards commercial reality, according to QMS.

Once in operation, McLaren said that it would provide far more information to producers on how their stock have performed, it would also help processors improve their efficiency in utilising the carcase and it would benefit the retailers with a consistency far above current performance levels.

QMS estimated the red meat industry could benefit by up to £5m 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.

McLaren, speaking at Bridge of Allan, denied the high tech equipment would only be of use at major processors, saying that, after visiting every abattoir in Scotland in the past year, he could see variations of the knowledge and equipment being used in every plant.

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, 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.

For the Scottish Government, which is co–funding the project, rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said the work was great news as helping to secure a viable future for the beef sector in Scotland.

“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,” he said.