Having conducted tens of thousands of quality inspections on meat and poultry products over the last 20 or so years, we thought this might provide our visitors with a good starting reference point for identifying the most common issues that are found with the quality of fresh meat.

1. Global Markets

The quality of meat products destined to retail, catering and leisure markets can be affected by several outside influences before they truly enter into the UK food distribution network. The first of these is of course the level of availability within the global livestock market. This has a knock on effect with the price of meat, the volume which is available within the market and the size of primals which are put into the distribution chain. Whether the product is a roasting joint, chops, mince or steaks it is dependent to some degree on the quality of the muscles from which the product is taken. The price of meat worldwide has been on the increase in recent years, a trend which does not look like reversing, which puts additional pressure on those involved at all stages of the meat distribution chain.

Once that meat has entered the UK market, it will generally be further processed or indeed completely processed within this country, taking the meat primals down to the required cuts and finished products. We have conducted thousands of meat quality assurance inspections over the years and this is the short-list of likely quality factors within the UK meat supply chain.

2. Staff

Good staff are, as we all know, very hard to find and even harder to keep. This is of course true in the food industry, and certainly has an impact on the quality of meat processing. The quality of finished products such as steaks and chops depend upon accurate cutting by staff who know what is expected from the product, and poor quality cutting can result in wedge cut steaks, underweight products, excessive fat left on a trimmed product, and product which is too thick, too thin or simply very inconsistent in its presentation. This latter can be a particular problem in the catering arena where consistency across neighbouring plates is essential.

3. Packaging

This should more truly be titled Packaging and Understanding the Nature of the Packaging, as vacuum packaging and controlled atmospheres can have an interesting effect on the quality of fresh meat, particularly in the visual appearance if not the actual eating quality. A beef steak stored and distributed in vacuum can develop over time a very definite green hue, which can make the product appear to be particularly poor quality, only to find that it can completely regain its appetising appearance looked at under a different light source, or after being left out of the packaging for the recommended time period following removal of the packaging and exposure of the product to oxygen. Likewise the controlled atmosphere in plastic trays used for packing joints can cause a similar discolouration when the meat comes into contact with the side of the plastic container.

Beyond the cosmetic, however, the packaging of meat products can have a significant impact on quality in the form of packs which do not make it through the distribution chain intact, and which tend to be rejected at the first stage of detection regardless of the particular sector of the food industry they are supplied to. We estimate that leaking packs of meat due to either inadequate selection of materials, imperfect implementation of the packaging process or poor handling of the packs within the distribution chain make up approximately 30% of all downgraded and rejected meat within the UK catering and leisure industry, based upon the findings of our quality inspections over the past decade.

4. What to Look For in Meat Quality

This is a list of what your QA team should focus on when assessing their meat deliveries, again based on the experience we have of conducting meat quality assurance programmes for food groups over the past 20ish years. This is not exhaustive, but if you control these points of meat quality within your food distribution chain you will be on the right track.

  • Weight
  • Fat and Visual Lean
  • Cutting standards
  • Packaging
  • Gristle

How much of this is your QA team skilled to assess and recognise? Together, these five points are likely to take control of 95% of your likely meat quality issues. You can of course get in touch with us about any aspects of food quality which might interest you by dropping us an enquiry.

Written by Tom New