NEW research has shown there is potential to more than double the shelf life of some red meat products and stop millions of dollars in losses due to unnecessary price cutting or discarding.
The use of vacuum skin packaging (VSP), and consistently holding the product at optimal low temperatures, can add shelf life well beyond standard 'best before' dates, the work has shown.
Food supply chain consultants Escavox tracked a hundred red meat supply chains, covering abattoirs to retail-ready plants to in-store meat cabinets right through to consumer's fridges, in a study funded by Meat & Livestock Australia.
The longest track through to the consumer fridge was 23 days, which the researchers determined left a further 67 days of remaining shelf life if the product was held in VSP and kept at a consistent negative .5 degrees Celsius.
The work also showed there was considerable variability in cold supply chains in transport and logistics of product which affects potential shelf life.
In particular, there are challenges in maintaining the cold chain in regional long-haul transport legs.
That effectively also means scope for improving supply chain control and reaping greater value from extended shelf life, according to Escavox's Darryl Lyons, who led the project.
Mr Lyons explained the 'best before' dates used by industry were largely based on historic practices rather than science.
He said fresh food supply chains were increasingly being put under the spotlight in the wake of COVID-19 and this research showed potential to improve the quality of fresh meat, retain more value for the supply chain and reduce wastage - all areas consumers were wanting action on.
VSP technology has been used in parts of the red meat industry for close to a decade.
MLA project manager food safety and market access Long Huynh said the research had uncovered a lot of potential but feasibility and achievability would present challenges, particularly in export markets where distribution control is shouldered by many.
Domestically, there were also other requirements supermarkets have, including the logistics of creating labelling in a very flexible environment and perceived consumer packaging preferences, he said.
Shelf life dates at the moment allowed for big buffers in supply chains and were very conservative, he explained.
A big takeaway from this project was the benefits of improving supply chain control, he said.
"By improving control of supply cold chain you can reliably say your product lasts longer," Mr Huynh said.
It was the potential to both increase the quality of red meat products and reduce waste that drove MLA investment in shelf life research, he said.
Research for the Department of Agriculture on waste in domestic cold food chains says in the red meat sector in 2018, 3.5 per cent of annual production, or 155,000 tonnes worth $670 million, was lost to waste.
In conjunction with the University of Tasmania, MLA had been developing an algorithm to predict the end of shelf life for beef and lamb based on unacceptable strong odour on opening the vacuum pack.
The tool has been in the validation phase for the past four years and how to best utilise it in the supply chain was the next step, Mr Huynh said. That's where this research came in.
Escavox deployed cutting-edge food tracing technology it has developed to collect data for the project.
The smart trackers provided automated, objective data on supply chain performance by tracking the movement of the product and the conditions to which it is exposed as it travels from processor to retail shelf.
Mr Lyons said the system captured data showing products dwelled outside the optimum temperature range for 27pc of the journey time when aggregated across the sample.
"It was clear from the study that beef brand owners should be monitoring their cold chains much closer and considering a move to VSP if they are committed to extending shelf life and extracting more value from their products," he said.
MORE IN BEEF: