New Zealand's meat exportation industry has been big business since the S.S. Dunedin left for London from Port Chalmers in 1882 with 600 refrigerated lamb and pig carcasses. These days, New Zealand's meat exports generate around $8 billion annually, but according to a 2009 report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery, the sheep and beef industry has been suffering from a steady decline in profitability due to various factors including the strong local dollar and the rising cost of meat production.
But the meat industry is on the cusp of a new profit-boosting enterprise. Scientist Dr. Alaa El-Din Bekhit from Otago University is electrocuting beef cuts at up to 25,000 volts to help fend off postmortem oxidization—making each cut juicier, and more lucrative.
MUNCHIES: Is electrocuting meat a new thing? Dr. Bekhit: Normally after slaughtering and dressing the carcass you—as standard practice— apply a little bit of electricity. It's a very, very small voltage for a very, very short time. This is to enhance what is called glycolosis so the meat doesn't become tough when you put it in the fridge. This was invented during the 60s here in New Zealand because at the time, they figured out if you killed the animal and put the carcass into the fridge straight away, the meat becomes very tough. When they exported the meat to Europe, people complained.
So why apply a higher voltage now? Well, the lower voltage can be useful for a very small number of muscles because the electrical input is not suitable to all different muscles—different muscles have different biochemistry and require different electrical inputs. But by delivering just one level of electricity, it affects some but it will not be enough to benefit all the muscles. And that's where we will get where some muscles are tender and some are not very tender.
What does a steak that's been electrocuted at 25,000 volts taste like? Well, everything costs lots of money, so we haven't done any tasting tests yet. What we can see—using a machine to test the force required to cut through the meat—is that the meat is becoming tender, and we are pretty sure things are OK. We've been doing this for 15 years and we know that there is a good correlation between the machine and a human's teeth.
What we really want to see is if there's any difference in taste, because that's something we cannot actually measure. We really on humans to tell us "ah, this is nice" or that there's an "off-note" or something. But because we don't really add any chemicals or any foreign compounds, the meat is only becoming more tender so we don't expect any change, but you never know.
But what stops you from personally just having a little nibble? I can do that… but my own opinion is biased. Normally, when you do sensory you need people who are unrelated to the project; people who are blind tasting. So then we can get accurate sensory information. It's just the proper scientific procedure that we have to follow.
OK, so that's just the next stage of the experiment? Yeah. Of course it's costly because you have to do with a large number of consumers, so you need the meat, and in many cases you need to offer some sort of reward for their attendance. This type of study normally requires about $100,000 or so.
What? Just to see if something tastes OK? Every time we did an experiment, it costs us around $5,000 for the meat only. So research is quite expensive, and if you start to add up, you know, chemicals, running biochemistry, and all the other stuff, it was big funding coming from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and America. This type of technology really takes a lot of time and a lot of investment.
So why didn't we start doing this earlier? Electrical stimulation, as I've mentioned before, is just adding electricity to the carcass, and that's easy. But you start looking at sensory characteristic: what attributes different cuts of meat have, how much electricity each cut needed, that took about 30 years of research.
Aren't there cheaper ways to make beef tender? There are so many different ways to make beef more tender, but it's just not done in New Zealand. I know around the world they use natural enzymes or the consumer does at-home experiments. For example: you can add kiwi fruit juice to steak to make it tender. But the problem with natural enzymes like kiwi fruit is that it alters the taste of the steak, and the consumer won't like the taste of the steak if it's not similar to the natural one. That's what this technology can offer: no chemicals and no enzymes, because nothing is added to the meat. It's just 100 percent what is there.
Are there other benefits of electrocution? The value of what the farmers get from the carcass of the animal will go up. Right now, ten percent of the muscles on the carcass of the animal gets premium revenue, so if you tenderize the other 90 percent, you will increase the value of the animal. The meat industry will get a lot of benefits. Consumers will be eating better quality meat, so tenderness will stop being a hamper or an issue in the use of red meat. Whenever you go and buy chicken, for example, you don't think about tenderness as being an issue. But tenderness is a big issue for red meat. Sometimes, when you buy a steak or a rump steak (depending on whether the steak has been aged well or it comes from a good animal it is tender) and sometimes you are disappointed—this inconsistency is a big issue for consumers.
Are there any negative consequences of electrocuting meat? No. Using electricity on meat is not really affecting anything. It doesn't add anything, it doesn't take away anything. Ideally, there is nothing there that we can expect to be harmful; we can expect only positive stuff.
With science, you're never sure. What we believed 40 years ago was good, turned out to be bad, and vice versa. Like dietary fiber for example, which forty years ago was thought of as a useless material which we were trying to get rid of it, we can see is very important for gut health and that it should be an essential part of our diets. Science can sometimes misjudge what we have in terms of evidence; we never know what will happen in the future.
Thanks for talking to me. I'm off to go find a steak.