Intramuscular fat: the hidden driver of lamb eating quality

James Nason, July 14, 2014

Two lamb chops were shown on a plate at Lambex 2014 last Thursday.

Visually both were identical.

However, as Meat & Livestock Australia’s Dr Alex Ball explained, one element within each chop that is all but invisible to the naked eye will determine around 80 percent of how the end-consumer rates their final eating quality.

That element is intramuscular fat (IMF).

Unlike beef, lamb doesn’t physically marble until the level of IMF reaches 8-10pc or above.

But within the two chops presented, the levels of intramuscular fat could vary from 2pc to 6pc, and the variation in that content could lead to significantly different consumer eating quality experiences.

Consumer research has consistently shown that as the level of IMF content increases, so too do consumer perceptions of lamb’s eating quality.

The big problem for researchers lies in finding ways to accurately measure key traits such as IMF.

“We have spent our last seven years proving that every technology to measure lean meat yield and intramuscular fat has failed miserably,” Dr Ball told the conference. However, the conference also heard that several new technologies are showing strong promise of providing the required breakthrough – see separate story here.

Dr Ball said that with reliable measurement will come the ability to predict key attributes in individual animals to ensure eating quality is maximised every time a consumer eats a piece of lamb.

An important objective for the industry he said was to increase the proportion of consumers who rate lamb as “normally juicy and tender” from around 60-70pc to above 80pc.

“As quality improves consumers want more out of flavour and juiciness and that is where IMF really has its importance.”

Dr Ball also stressed though that it was also important not to ‘over balance’ the emphasis on IMF: “Let’s keep our mind on the fact that we have still got to drive lean meat yield at the same time that we’re driving IMF,” he said.

“My simple rule is if you’re not buying rams with positive IMF and negative sheer force in the next couple of years, I think we’re going to be in all sorts of trouble with the lamb industry in future.”


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