The ethics of animal welfare and the science of meat quality – two sides of the same coin
Provenir’s focus on animal welfare is driven in equal part by ethics and science with the two very much going hand in hand – happy cows produce better meat. It makes sense that animal stress leads to tension and toughness in meat, however, studies and research have revealed that animal stress affects meat quality in a range of ways. In every instance, extended periods of stress is directly correlated to detrimental effects on meat quality.
On-farm processing has long been the holy grail of true paddock to plate online meat production. Connecting the farmer with the consumer through processing on-farm has a huge range of positive outcomes, with superior quality ethical meat being just one key benefits. Processing meat on farm means significantly higher welfare for cattle, better connection with the provenance of the product, lower food miles and yes – better quality meat.
Yes – we process cattle, which involves the slaughter of the animal. Many question how we can talk about animal welfare when we are processing them. Well, that’s the time when animal welfare considerations are paramount. How can we process cattle in a way that respects the animal, keeps stress to an instant and ensures true provenance? On-farm processing is not only the best ethical answer but it’s the best scientific solution as well.
How does animal stress affect the quality of meat?
Animal stress produces meat with a “tight” texture that is typically tougher and becomes dry more easily during the cooking process. Poor meat quality can be attributed to higher levels of pH, which is caused by low levels of glycogen in the muscle – after processing, glycogen naturally converts to lactic acid which in turn leads to lower pH and more tender meat.
Glycogen develops in the muscle as a result of a high quality nutritional diet – the amount and quality of feed that is provided to the animal. For Provenir cattle, which graze on a high quality natural pasture diet, these glycogen levels are high, and most importantly remain high through the quick on-farm slaughtering process. However levels of glycogen are depleted through stress, which is a consequence of human handling, transport and a response to unfamiliar environments such as saleyards, feedlots and fixed abattoirs (which 99.9% of commercial beef cattle encounter). The disruption of familiar social grouping is also a contributing factor to high animal stress levels.
For the science nerds out there (… like Chris, our CEO animal stress activates the autonomic nervous system and stimulates neuroendocrine responses which include the release of cortisol and catecholamine (adrenaline and noradrenaline). This results in increased metabolism, heart rate and body temperature leading to the depletion of muscle glycogen resulting in higher muscle pH post rigor mortis previously discussed. Put simply, calmer cattle result in more tender meat.
More on glycogen in meat from Meat and Livestock Australia;
“When an animal is exposed to a new environment, unfamiliar sounds or new animals in the social group, they become stressed. They will automatically try to act out one of two basic responses, ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. As soon as either of these responses occurs the glycogen stored in the muscles is rapidly mobilised to enable the animal to either run (flight) or to attack (fight). In the case of severe stress or exertion, the ‘holes’ in the bucket get bigger and much of the energy is lost. When this occurs it will take a minimum of five days on good nutrition before these energy stores start to be replenished.
Poor mustering or handling during yarding and transport loading dramatically increases the rate of glycogen loss. As energy continues to be lost while animals are being transported and yarded, it is important to minimise the loss by making the transport to slaughter time as short as possible and paying attention to transport, lairage conditions and practice.”
Transport is the key issue for animal stress and meat quality, with a range of potential welfare issues affecting cattle during transport which also impact the physiological systems. These include fear and stress (affecting cortisol, catecholamines, heart rate and respiration rate), muscle damage and exertion (creatine kinase), dehydration (osmolality and total protein) and food restriction (free fatty acids and beta-hydroxybutyrate). These physiological responses combine to significantly deplete glycogen levels in the animal (Dikeman et al 2017).
In summary, improved animal welfare and lowered animal stress creates superior tasting meat by retaining glycogen and hydration in the muscle. These negative effects on meat quality can be avoided through low-stress handling and processing, as is consistently achieved through Provenir’s mobile on farm processing unit – read more about this at a previous news article; ‘Let’s talk about animal welfare: stress and on-farm processing’.
“MSA research has found beef with pH levels above 5.70 to be of lower and more variable eating quality … High pH meat can be prevented. And it’s worth it. By improving handling and care in marketing livestock, there are other benefits such as:Meat and Livestock Australia
• reduced bruising
• improved animal welfare
• reduced weight loss
What effect does animal stress have on meat quality?
Animal stress, the depletion of glycogen and the subsequent raising of pH levels lead to meat which is darker in colour, tougher and tends to lose moisture during cooking.
While accessing the information on how beef is processed can be challenging, it is safe to assume that all beef purchased from a supermarket [except where Provenir is stocked] and most from other retailers has experienced significant and prolonged stress during processing. This is reflected by the fact all cattle in Australia not processed on farm inevitably must be transported to a fixed abattoir. Avoiding transport is key to high animal welfare and is at the core of Provenir’s philosophy, but there is a long way to go before this is the norm.
In addition to the unacceptable eating quality, high pH meat has the following features:
Meat and Livestock Australia
- It is often known as dark cutting meat, as it generally has a purple appearance rather than the consumer preferred bright red colour.
- A coarse texture.
- Higher water holding capacity (so the meat loses a lot of moisture during cooking).
- Reduced shelf life (bacteria grow more rapidly due to the higher pH and moisture) It appears undercooked remaining pink in the centre despite extensive cooking
In summary – high animal welfare produces better meat
Humanely processed ethical meat equals better quality meat and this can be achieved by processing on farms in the animals familiar environments. However, the on-farm butcher – or meat direct from the farmer – is difficult to access, mainly because very few actually exist. Provenir is determined to change that, facilitating the sale of online meat direct from the farmer to you, the consumer. To find out more information on where your meat is processed, scan the QR code on each Provenir pack.
Meat and Livestock Australia 2011, The effect of pH on beef eating quality, Meat and Livestock Australia, viewed 6 January 2021, <https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/effect-of-ph-on-beef-eating-quality_sep11.pdf>
Dikeman, Michael E. et al. Ensuring Safety and Quality in the Production of Beef Volume 2 : Quality. 1st ed. Cambridge: Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited, 2017. Print.
Kerth, Chris R. The Science of Meat Quality. Ames, Iowa: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.eto
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