Getting the Facts Straight with Accurate Fat Analysis

Red Meat
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Of all the influences on the food industry in general, access to greater amounts of more detailed food content information is unquestionably one of the most important. Current consumer and regulatory climates demand easy access to different kinds of information, from nutritional values on product packaging for increasingly health-conscious shoppers, to extensive databases of food inspection results to meet stringent industry safety standards. Given this trend, it is not surprising to find so many meat manufacturers closely scrutinizing the processes they use to analyze the content of their products – or, more specifically, the effectiveness of their chemical lean (CL) value testing for accurate fat analysis.

A numerical value that represents crude fat content, the CL total is a key indicator of product quality for meat manufacturers, processors and consumers alike. It is a number arrived at by complex processes; an innocuous looking figure of crucial significance.

In the face of mounting pressure to provide more nutritional data while keeping an eagle eye on the bottom line, manufacturers need an easy, efficient and accurate way to measure CL content. As it stands, inaccurate, invasive methods of CL analysis affect bottom line through manufacturing inefficiency, processor ‘fat claims’ and product giveaway. By contrast, accurate and repeatable inline systems don’t merely eliminate these problems – they open up previously unachievable benefits in manufacturing line management.

Here we’ll evaluate several fat analysis methods and their applicability for current market pressures.

The Growing Pressure on Accurate CL Values

The CL value of meat, meat products and animal feedstuff (meat meal) is represented by a numerical figure that is calculated by subtracting fat percentage from a flat rate of 100. A fat percentage of ten results in a CL value of 90. Several current trends are calling for highly accurate and rapidly obtained CL value.

As in other food markets, meat consumers have gradually placed more emphasis on content information on the products they’re purchasing, for example nutritional data, at the same time as burgeoning cost pressures are taking their toll on manufacturers. Healthy eating has been slowly moving up the agenda for a number of years, to the point where it is now one of the most influential factors in consumer purchasing habits. Food shoppers are now more likely than ever to select the low fat option from the supermarket shelf, as highlighted in market research firm The NPD Group’s recent study, which found that 85 million adults ranked nutritional value as first or second in importance when selecting food/drink products1. The impact of this trend on the meat industry will soon deepen, with meat and poultry sold in the United States required to display nutritional labelling as of January 20122. According to Mark Dopp of the American Meat Institute, this labelling presents an opportunity for the industry to showcase the wide availability of lean meats3.

This trend has an inevitable effect on CL testing. With widespread consumer concern regarding obesity, heart disease and diabetes, levels of fats and trans-isomer fatty acids in meat products are of particular importance. Manufacturers must be able to ensure that their fat analyses are accurate in order to reassure both meat processors and consumers – the times when six percent variance in CL percentages was deemed acceptable have now gone.

With supermarket price pressure another key market trend, meat manufacturers are looking for more innovative ways to reduce their manufacturing costs. The lingering effects of the worldwide recession mean that while consumers demand healthier and more convenient meat products, they also want them at a lower price. The need to reduce costs is inevitably passed on to manufacturers.

Fat claims and lean meat giveaway are avoidable sources of cost in meat manufacturing that arise from outdated methods of CL testing. After purchasing a consignment of meat at a stated CL value, a processing company will perform its own sample analysis for comparison. Should the CL value be found to be lower (i.e., greater fat content) than that stated, the processor will issue a ‘fat claim’, which requires the manufacturer to pay compensation. Equally, there are no refunds in the case of a higher CL value being found, resulting in lean meat giveaway. Whichever way the inaccuracy swings, manufacturers lose out.

Current Methods – Is There a Better Way?

In looking at current needs for CL testing– namely high accuracy and speed – a number of inadequacies have appeared in the long-time industry standard reference model – the Soxhlet method. In use for over one hundred years, the Soxhlet method has long and well served its purpose in the meat industry. However, it can take up to a whole day for just a small sample of product to be extracted for analysis to obtain the CL value. Additionally, the Soxhlet method is typically applied to samples extracted from just a six percent portion of the overall consignment, of which two grams are tested. This means that the inspection rate is a mere 0.00001%.

Owing to the greatly limited size of the samples used, the Soxhlet method gives results with a high margin of error that is not ideal for today’s demands. Such a tiny amount of meat cannot be compositionally representative of consignments up to tens of kilograms in size, and hence the CL value calculated cannot be accurate either.

Two of the most common current methods of CL testing in the meat industry are Anyl-Ray® and Near Infrared Reflectance/Transmission (NIR/NIT) techniques. The former is an offline measurement that works only in a predetermined range of fat percentage and is known to have up to a 6% variance, whilst the latter is inline but analyses just five to ten percent of product. Both only work on ground products according to an independent study by the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, Massey University, New Zealand.

Meat manufacturers require more accurate and efficient methods of fat analysis. Non-invasive, precise and repeatable techniques of fat analysis significantly reduce the losses incurred through inaccurate measurements, while ease-of-use, manufacturing line versatility and machine reliability help to bring down total cost of ownership (TCO).

The Future – DEXA

Looking at solutions on the market today, one option has several advantages to meet current demands – this technique is DEXA, or dual energy x-ray absorptiometry. DEXA is already well known in the medical field and is now used as a non-invasive, inline method to determine CL content for meat and meat products.

In order to determine fat levels, the system utilizes two energy spectrums to discriminate between high and low channel x-rays. Essentially, DEXA machines measure the amount of x-rays that are absorbed by fat in the meat as it passes through the system. It is the most precise method of fat analysis, accurately producing CL values within +/- 1CL and the most repeatable, as verified by the independent study from Massey University, New Zealand. This method therefore satisfies current market demands for greater accuracy, and helps manufacturers avoid fat claims and giveaway. Furthermore, real time scanning DEXA fat analysis systems allow manufacturers to quickly verify that incoming and outgoing meat, either in bulk or E2 crates, are within specification – entailing no disruption to output levels, and allowing total control.

Not a One Trick Pony

The most innovative DEXA machines are not only accurate and repeatable – they function dually as management tools and process control tools, giving company leadership the information they need to make informed decisions and guarantee compliance. Intuitive management software, barcode readers and trace servers, which allow quality personnel to remotely access real time data and reports for production, rejection, weight and trending, can greatly improve manufacturing processes; cutting costs and meeting regulatory standards.

This is especially important considering another major trend – the need for regulatory compliance and traceability through every stage of a product’s life cycle. Increasingly strict industry standards, such as the US Food and Drug Administration Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law on January, 4, 2011, have sought to tighten track-and-trace standards across the food industry. Meat products now need to be effectively catalogued and product tracking information simple and easy to access. In fact, the meat industry focus on traceability does not only stem from tightened regulations, but also from a requirement for greater efficiency – a database of all CL tested products allows the manufacturer to build shipments to a specific CL value.

In addition, software now available as part of fat analysis solutions inspects for contaminants such as metal, glass, stone and calcified bone at the same time as checkweighing and carrying out CL testing. Other features can be added to allow for internal classification of cartons for batch applications that call for accurate blended final product. This combination of processes facilitates significant savings in machine TCO and guarantees compliance with rigid food safety standards.

Current Method of Choice

Fat analysis has come a long way. As well as carrying out their primary function on CL testing to a far higher degree of accuracy, modern solutions offer previously unachievable levels of traceability, multi-functionality in the form of simultaneous contaminant inspection and checkweighing, and peerless reliability. To meet current trends in healthy eating, price-competitiveness and tightened regulations, and to stay one step ahead of future developments, meat manufacturers can turn to DEXA to meet CL testing needs.

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