In the sheep meat industry the amount of intramuscular fat is a key indicator of eating quality, but can be particularly difficult to measure in lamb carcases, which are not individually graded.
A team of medical engineers and livestock researchers from the University of Adelaide, in collaboration with Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and tech start-up Miniprobes, has been awarded a $1.5 million Commonwealth Government Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) grant to develop a new technology to overcome this problem.
The intramuscular fat (IMF) needle is a stainless-steel needle fitted with a tiny camera made of optical fibre, which when inserted provides an instant, high-resolution scan of the fat structure within muscle.
Originally developed for the medical industry, the needle’s design is based on 10 years of research and development from the University of Adelaide and University of Western Australia.
Lead researcher Professor Robert McLaughlin from the University of Adelaide’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences who also Managing Director of Miniprobes, said, “The technology was originally developed for identifying human cancer cells, but we found when tested, it was more effective in seeing individual fat cells than cancer cells.”
Professor McLaughlin and his team saw a new potential use for the technology after speaking to MLA, who outlined the importance of being able to objectively measure eating quality in sheep meat.
“One of the realisations we had was that almost every medical technology we’ve worked on has some equivalent usage in the livestock industry,” Professor McLaughlin said.
The IMF needle is based on standard medical imaging technology and operates similarly to high resolution ultrasound, but uses near infrared light instead of sound. When the needle is inserted into the carcase the camera scans the tissue along the needle track. Fat appears as a black and white honeycomb texture and muscle appears as a more uniform texture of muscle fibres. The fat is then identified and measured using an artificial neural network.
In an MLA-funded pilot study of the needle, researchers were able to estimate intramuscular fat in hot carcases with an average of 0.9 per cent error.
As well as measuring IMF, the needle offers other benefits for the red meat industry including: the ability to assess carcases without damaging them, and an opportunity to provide feedback to farmers who can use this information to improve breeding quality and animal husbandry approaches for the best returns.
The CRC-P grant will assist in translating this new technology into a commercial product for the Australian red meat industry.
“This device will provide our exporters with a technological advantage over lamb from other countries, with the potential to increase Australian sheep meat sales by $183 million per year. The work is currently focused on lamb. However, it also has potential application for the beef industry,” said Professor McLaughlin.
The research team has also received an ARC Linkage project for research into the next generation of meat quality technology.
Source: University of Adelaide