WA Meat Marketing Co-operative rolls out X-ray technology to ‘boost eating quality’ and provide feedback

Headshot of Bob Garnant
Bob GarnantCountryman
WA Meat Marketing Company supply and development manager Rob Davidson.
Camera IconWA Meat Marketing Company supply and development manager Rob Davidson. Credit: Countryman

One of WA’s biggest abattoirs hopes to start providing feedback to farmers on the quality of their sheepmeat using X-ray technology by the end of the year.

WA Meat Marketing Co-operative was the fifth Australian abattoir to install Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry, or DEXA, and the first in Western Australia.

With the $6 million installation finished in August, final calibrations are under way to integrate the technology into the processing line by the end of the year.

The new tool can accurately measure the weight of lamb meat accurately at abattoir chain speed and has been lauded for maximising processing profitability.

The first WA installation was a hot topic at WAMMCO’s annual general meeting in Katanning last Wednesday.

WAMMCO supply and development manager Rob Davidson said the abattoir planned to give lamb suppliers feedback on both lean meat yield and eating quality.

“The amount of what people are willing to pay between a good piece of meat, three star, and elite quality, five star, is 100 per cent,” he said.

Murdoch University’s Professor Graham Gardner
Camera IconMurdoch University’s Professor Graham Gardner Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

“In time, we will give producers a three-month running average of their lean meat yield on their lambs, when we have enough data in place.

“This is driving our next project which is the electronic ear tag hoof tracking project, so producers can track back to individual sires.”

Mr Davidson said DEXA data would also drive robotic technology at WAMMCO’s Katanning plant for accurate cutting and enhanced shelf life.

“WAMMCO has plans to measure eating quality and we are considering the current technologies available to also supply producers with feedback in that trait,” he said.

DEXA was initially designed as a medical imaging device to measure the density of human bones.

Back in 2011, Murdoch University Professor Graham Gardner started investigating an X-ray system which could guide robots to cut meat accurately at abattoir chain speed.

He was asked if the X-ray image could determine the amount of bone, muscle and fat. The answer was “no”, which resulted in the development of a device that could.

After 15 different prototypes, researchers arrived at an abattoir “chain speed device” — DEXA — with two X-rays to work out bone, muscle, and fat.

“This tool is fantastic because you can measure the weight of meat effectively,” Dr Gardner said.

“If you then put in place price signals that make the market respond and chase that value and if you don’t keep your eye on eating quality, you will stuff that very thing up.

“This is the word of warning, you have the tool that can absolutely decimate eating quality by creating a price signal without having it balanced.”

Dr Gardner works for the Advanced Livestock Measurement Technologies Project, a Federal Government-funded program designed to improve supply chain measurement.

“We are particularly focused on carcases in the abattoirs, but also live animals,” he said.

“We have two main traits we are trying to predict — meat yield and eating quality.”

The amount of what people are willing to pay between a good piece of meat, three star, and elite quality, five star, is 100 per cent.

Rob Davidson

Brazilian meat giant JBS’ Bordertown abattoir in South Australia was the first Australian location to install DEXA in 2016.

Dr Gardner said he was excited about the WAMMCO installation which was a “hot DEXA” — meaning it would deliver quicker carcase feedback. He said DEXA could also predict the lean meat weight of the different cuts before the whole carcase was cut up.

“If we have this estimation and you know the retail value of those cuts and the market volumes, you can throw all that information in the mix at one time,” he said.

“You can then estimate to your business of what the value of weight and variation of lean meat yield, or fatness, is worth to the business.”

Dr Gardner said DEXA data could then be applied into an optimisation model to maximise a profit function. He said DEXA feedback would allow producers breeding for high muscle carcases to benchmark sire breeding values to their processing results.

He said the genetic progression recorded on SheepGenetics database during the past 20 years had seen lean meat yield skyrocket because of selection pressure.

Meanwhile, intramuscular fat and sheer force were declining.

“If we could measure at chain speed and have two signals, both lean meat yield and IMF, this would fix the problem of eating quality spiralling,” he said.

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