Microscopic camera is helping us see new opportunities for the meat industry

Lamb roast

Australia’s position as the world’s largest exporter of lamb and mutton is under threat from other international suppliers –  China has three times our production capacity and our neighbours in New Zealand have high-quality produce, threatening our current position.

As a result, there’s an urgent need to ensure the long-term viability of our export sheep-meat industry through the supply of premium lamb. It’s the most profitable opportunity and builds upon our long held existing position as a provider of high-quality agricultural products.

A University of Adelaide research project is using microscopic camera technology to allow lamb producers to measure meat quality quickly and reliably.

Professor Robert McLaughlin, Chair of Biophotonics at the University of Adelaide and a member of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics, together with Professor Wayne Pitchford, Professor of Animal Breeding and Director of the Davies Livestock Research Centre, lead a team that is combining photonics, 3D microprinting and deep data learning.

“Intramuscular fat is a key indicator of eating quality,” says Professor McLaughlin, “but it can be particularly difficult to measure in lamb carcasses, which are not individually graded.”

“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 without affecting the carcass,” says Professor McLaughlin.

The team originally designed this technology to identify human cancer cells, but they found it was more effective in seeing fat cells than cancer cells.

Professor McLaughlin and his team saw a new potential use for the technology after speaking to Meat and Livestock Australia, 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.

What’s next?

Studies show that consumers will pay between 50% and 100% more for premium quality meat, however, meat quality varies between individual sheep. This research and technology will help producers measure and maintain meat quality during processing to better tap into the lucrative premium market.

“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.” Says Professor Mclaughlin. “The work is currently focused on lamb. However, it also has potential applications within the beef industry."

Tagged in agriculture, food and wine, Agriculture, food and wine, Health and biotech