Production technology of culinary beef in the EU

Among the four main types of meat produced and consumed in the world, culinary beef is the most valued by both consumers from countries with the highest consumption (USA, Argentina, Australia) and from the countries with the most famous culinary traditions (France, Italy, Spain).

World production of beef in 2015 was approx. 58.4 million tonnes. The largest producers were the USA (over 10.8 million tonnes) and Brazil (9.4 million tonnes). In 2015, the EU produced 7.6 million tonnes and was the third largest producer of this kind of meat.

In 2015, within international trade, over 9.9 tonnes were sold, while the share of EU countries was limited to only 207 thousand tonnes. However, the EU ranked 4th among importers, with an amount of 307 thousand tonnes. Therefore, the EU is a net importer of beef mainly from Brazil and Argentina.

The term of culinary beef, this covers meat obtained from young cattle aged:

  • 7-10 weeks, veal,
  • 10-12 months, rose veal,
  • and cattle not older than 30 months, beef.

The meat of older animals, often after a period of use for dairy production and containing a relatively high content of connective tissue in the form of tendons and membranes (mainly perimysium) and fat – so-called meat for processing, should be the raw material for the production of medium or finely chopped cooked sausages.

The culinary quality of beef depends on a number of features, out of which the share of individual tissues: muscle, connective and adipose tissue, and the colour are the most important for the decision of purchase. During the consumption of meat, the consumers pay special attention to the tenderness and juiciness and the overall flavour of the meat. In turn, in the case of meat for processing, besides tissue composition, the characteristics of a good raw material mainly include the capacity of binding water, gelation and emulsification of fat.

The culinary quality of beef depends on several factors, in particular including:

  • vital factors (genetics, nutrition),
  • correctness of execution of all pre- and post-mortem actions,
  • course of the process of cooling carcasses and maturation of meat,
  • method of dividing, cutting, packaging and distribution.

In cattle breeding, there are 3 basic utility types: dairy, beef and combined. The dairy type includes relatively slowly growing and late maturing breeds, of a characteristic structure of the body similar to a triangle. Musculature is poorly developed (especially on the legs), and the dressing percentage is approximately 50%. The most famous breeds include the Holstein Friesians (so-called H-F) and Jersey. The beef type includes early maturing breeds with high weight gain. The front part of the body is well developed, and the animal, seen from the side, has a rectangular shape. The dressing percentage reaches 70%. There are over 100 registered breeds of beef cattle, including the most popular French: Limousin, Charolaise, Blond d’Aquitaine, English: Hereford and Angus, and Italian: Piemontese, breeds. The combined type defines cattle whose body structure is more similar to the beef type. The best-known breeds include: Simmental, Brown Swiss cattle. Out of 1.4 billion heads of cattle in the world, over 1 billion are kept solely for meat production.

In beef production, two systems, different in terms of genetics and breeding technology used, are applied. In countries specialising in beef production beef breeds of cattle (kept pure) or their different crossbreeds, based on the selection of genes that determine e.g. higher growth rate, better feed utilisation and improved carcass quality (dressing percentage and more favourable musculature) are used. The calves are separated from their mothers (so-called weaning) at the age of 7-9 months with a body weight of 200-350 kg, and subsequently an intensive fattening (using mainly maize silage and “complete ration” feed with a high proportion of cereal-based feed) to a body weight of 500-700 kg is performed.

In countries where beef production is based on utilised dairy cattle breeds, calves (preferably crossbreeds of dairy breed cows and beef breed bulls) are weaned from their mothers as early as after 5-7 days (after consumption of colostrum). Fattening can be performed using an intensive (significant share of cereal-based feed), semi-intensive (cereal-based feed covers approx. 30% of the demand for nutrients), extensive (mainly bulky feed – green fodder and hay) or a mixed system. Significant differences in the intensity of the fattening cause the animals to obtain the predetermined final body weight of 500-600 kg at the age of:

  • 13-15 months (intensive fattening),
  • 18-20 months (semi-intensive fattening),
  • 24-27 months (extensive fattening).

The final results of fattening and carcass quality also depend on the sex of the animal. The best results of fattening are achieved for bull calves, worse – for steers, and the worst – for heifers. The dressing percentage of heifers is significantly lower than of bull calves, and their meat has a higher fat content. The dressing percentage of steers is slightly higher than for bull calves, while their musculature is worse and the meat is greasy. It is acceptable to use additives listed in EC 767/2009 in animal nutrition feed, including those influencing the amount and quality of fat, reducing fat oxidation (vitamin E) or affecting the activity of proteolytic enzymes (calcium propionate, vitamin D3).

Each livestock farm is under veterinary supervision. Technical conditions of buildings, spaces, enclosures and their equipment must meet the requirements of the EC Regulation on animal welfare (Council Directive 98/58/EC).

On the livestock farm, the animals get used to the surrounding environment, other animals in the group and their attendants. After leaving the breeding facilities, they are driven to the loading area and to the means of transport (mainly specialised vehicles), transported and unloaded and subsequently driven again to warehouses for slaughter animals. Therefore, they are repeatedly introduced into new, unfamiliar environments, with unknown odours, sounds, animals and humans. During transport, they are performing activities necessary to maintain balance on board the vehicle, continuously changing position, which causes stress, fatigue and rapid consumption of energetic resources of the body (mainly glycogen). As a result, the course of post-mortem changes may deviate from the correct ones, which causes a significant deterioration in meat quality. Furthermore, damage (contusions, injuries, broken limbs) may occur, which result in a significant reduction in the usefulness of carcasses for the production of culinary meat and, in extreme cases, in their disposal. Conditions for transporting slaughter animals in force in EU countries are determined by Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005.

In order to empty the gastrointestinal tract (without excessive fasting of animals), feeding should be stopped 12 hours before transport is started. In pre-slaughter warehouses, animals should be tethered or kept in individual boxes (especially bulls).

Rest and pre-slaughter fasting should optimally take for 24 hours. Administration of a 3% molasses solution 3-4 hours prior to slaughter is recommended, especially in the case of bulls (to supplement the level of glycogen, which reduces the occurrence of meat defects of the DFD type).

The slaughter of animals requires the execution of a series of actions in an order conditioned by humanitarian, hygienic and organisational reasons. In industrial facilities the correct execution of these actions is rigorously observed and supervised by veterinarians.

In the industrial slaughter of cattle, electrical or mechanical stunning is used. The stunning effect must last for a minimum of 60 seconds. Bleeding, started by cutting the carotid arteries and jugular veins, should last approximately 4 minutes and cause the removal of approx. 80% of the amount of blood. Numerous slaughterhouses in the EU are adapted to perform the ritual slaughter of animals according to the procedures presented in detail by the religious rules of Judaism and Islam. Ritual slaughter is performed without prior stunning of animals and only by authorised individuals.

During skinning and removal of the head, particular attention is paid to hygiene and the accuracy of these operations. Execution of these actions is a limit for operations performed in a so-called dirty part of the slaughter line.

Evisceration (removal of internal organs from individual body cavities) of cattle is difficult, because of the large weight of removed organs, especially of the intestines and stomach. Perforation or disruption of continuity of the gastrointestinal tract and contamination of the abdominal cavity with gastric contents and faeces results in the need to transfer the carcass to be disposed of.

Carcasses of cattle are halved by cutting out the entire vertebral column. It is recommended to use devices with two parallel circular saws.

Veterinary examination of carcasses, heads and viscera is performed according to the rules set forth in EU Regulation (EC) 853/2004 and 854/2004.

In a number of slaughterhouses in the EU, devices for electrical stimulation of carcasses (using a high-voltage or a low-voltage method) are installed. The use of this procedure prevents the formation of favourable conditions for the occurrence of “cooling contraction” and significantly accelerates post-mortem changes.

Post-mortem classification of carcasses is conducted using the EUROP method according to (EC) No. 1234/2007 and (EC) No. 1249/2008 (determination of the weight and category of carcasses, visual assessment of conformation and fat of carcasses). Member States are entitled to make a further division of conformation and fat classes into a maximum of three subclasses.

In Denmark, a more objective classification method, using a technique of video and neural networks, was developed. It is legalised by Commission Regulation (EC) No. 1215/2003.

The process of slaughtering and post-mortem processing of slaughter animals conducted under industrial conditions lasts approximately 30 minutes. Once complete, the temperature of the carcasses is close to the body temperature of the animals.

Post-mortem chilling of cattle carcasses is conducted by a single- or two-stage method to a temperature below 7°C in the centre of the round. Cooling parameters (temperature, relative air humidity and velocity of its circulation, as well as cooling time) in both methods, and especially in the single-step method, must be selected in a way so that too rapid cooling of the carcass does not cause a defect of “cooling contraction”, and too slow cooling is not the cause of a so-called scalding of the meat. The correctness of carcass cooling is controlled by measuring the temperature in the geometric centre of the thickest layers of meat or inside the round. During cooling, the surface of the exposed muscle tissues undergoes darkening, and a layer of subcutaneous fat, especially tallow, yellows. This is a result of the formation of a thin layer of dried meat and subcutaneous fat on the surface of carcasses, which inhibits air penetration into the deeper layers of the tissues.

During post-mortem cooling and refrigeration storage, carcasses undergo a series of biochemical processes known as maturation. Their correct course determines the formation of specific quality parameters of culinary meat, in particular tenderness, flavour and aroma. In order to achieve the desired effect of tenderness and formation of flavour and aroma of the meat, it is necessary to store beef carcasses under cold storage conditions for a minimum period of 10-12 days from the time of slaughter. An alternative for whole carcasses is a maturation of a so-called “beef pistol” (or round, rump and a part of entrecote) or only individual culinary elements packed using the “vacuum” method.

The process of cutting beef carcasses is conducted in two stages. In the first stage, the carcasses or quarters are divided into several parts, including several main elements, and in the subsequent stage, a division into individual essential parts is performed. These can be intended for trade without further processing, transferred to further maturation or divided and cut into smaller, so-called culinary multiple-portion elements. The cutting lines and names of culinary elements are different in individual countries or even their regions. This results in a significant impediment to international meat trade in the form of essential elements. The most common point of reference in cutting carcasses is the skeletal system and not muscular system. The number of essential elements obtained during cutting carcasses in individual countries is very different and is at a level of several to several dozen elements. The more cuts obtained during cutting, the more uniform there is on the composition of their tissues, but their cutting is more labour-intensive, and therefore costly. To meet the demands of the market, cutting facilities are prepared to conduct cutting according to local systems or customer requirements (including foreign customers).

After packaging with synthetic materials, multiple-portion culinary elements can be transferred to the retail market or subjected to further cutting into single-portion elements and packaging. Each unit pack of culinary beef must be appropriately labelled. It is important to provide information on the duration of maturation of the meat and the preferred method of heat treatment.

The applied method of packaging (on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped with foil, “vacuum” or MAP packaging) determines the intensity of changes occurring in meat during storage in post-production warehouses, as well as wholesale or retail stores. It also determines shelf life and facilitates distribution and retail trade of meat. During transport and storage, conditions for “continuity of the cold chain” must be maintained.

It is recommended to place posters presenting individual essential parts of the carcass and the elements cut from them, accompanied by information about the recommended method of heat treatment, in retail stores selling culinary beef.