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One protein at a time

Lincoln University

One protein at a time

Emerging technologies that improve the quality of New Zealand’s meat through innovative processing methods might revolutionise the meat industry as we know it.


By Nadia Shaw-Owens

Proteins are the machinery of life. Every cell in the human body contains protein — muscle, bone, skin, hair, tissue — and they are an essential part of our diet. The basic structure and functions of proteins has been known for more than eighty years, however, technology has only recently developed to allow us to detect modifications in proteins; understanding these modifications will improve meat quality, environmental impact, and dietary health for Kiwis.

Protein dominates New Zealand exports and is a cornerstone in our economy — the red meat sector exported products worth $12 billion in 2023, and an analysis of data from the New Zealand Health Survey found that 93 per cent of the population eats meat. Not only do we do it big, we do it well, and New Zealand has a strong reputation for the quality of its meat. A big indicator of quality, and the leading factor in repeat buying, is the tenderness of meat.

Not only do we do it big, we do it well, and New Zealand has a strong reputation for the quality of its meat.

Jim Morton, biochemist and former Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Lincoln University, has studied an enzyme called calpain for 30 years to understand how processing technologies can result in more tender meat. Calpain is an enzyme found in muscle, and it is responsible for the ageing of meat. “If we are using prime animals for meat, it will give us a tender product. However, our national beef herd is made up of lots of animals who are not designed to be meat animals, like dairy and older cattle. So I became interested in learning about methodologies that would make meat tender through a shorter process.”

Using a high pressure processing machine, Morton was able to encourage meat to activate the calpain enzyme, resulting in 1 day-old meat replicating the tenderness of 28 day old meat. This experimentation in meat processing technology aligns with the goal of making New Zealand’s meat of high and consistent quality — with 90 per cent of our meat travelling long distances overseas, it is crucial that the product is highly competitive in calibre.

Jim Morton, biochemist and Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Lincoln University.

Meat processing technologies may hold the key to making New Zealand’s agricultural industry as sustainable as possible. Through optimising the value of our products using innovative methods, New Zealand can decrease waste, maximise production, and re-invest back into minimising environmental impact throughout the industry. Calpain experimentation is only one facet of Morton’s work, he has also studied electrical stimulation to accelerate tenderisation, retaining the red colour of lamb, and the effect of animal stress on meat quality.

Morton’s work is part of a diverse portfolio of projects at Lincoln University, ranging from improving pasture management and livestock feeding strategies to reducing methane emissions and pioneering welfare-oriented practices. Lincoln University has a long-standing reputation for their dedication to reducing the environmental footprint of the agriculture industry, using science based solutions that aim to increase both productivity and enhance animal welfare. Lincoln’s scientists are international experts in their fields and collaborate closely with industry partners to develop innovative technologies and farming techniques. Lincoln University’s work is an essential part of shaping a future where animal agriculture not only thrives economically but also aligns with the need for environmental stewardship.


This story appeared in the April 2024 issue of North & South.