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New tool assesses the quality of mechanically separated meat

A joint venture between universities and private enterprises has resulted in the development of a tool that can measure the degradation of the muscle structure in mechanically separated meat (MSM). All MSM is currently sold as a low-value product – although part of it is actually of high quality.

2016.04.04 | Nina Hermansen

Nowadays it is actually possible to produce MSM that cannot be distinguished from ordinary minced chicken meat.

The annual production of chicken meat in Denmark runs into 170,000 tonnes. The vast majority of this is sold as cuts of breast, thigh and wings, but when these parts have been removed by machine, there is still a substantial amount of meat left on the carcass. These residues can be recovered by mechanical means. However, EU-legislation stipulates that if a machine has been used to obtain the product it is not to be considered as meat but should be regarded as mechanically separated meat (MSM) and should be labelled as such. MSM products are therefore often used as ingredients in, for example, sausages or animal feed. The argument for this is that muscle structure inevitably will undergo some degree of degradation by this procedure, which is what the legislation refers to. 

- The main problem is that until now it has not been possible to measure the degree of muscle structure degradation. All products therefore have been classified as MSM. However, the level of degradation depends on the type of machinery used and on the pressure used to separate meat. In recent years, machines and methods for separating meat from the carcass have significantly improved and there may therefore be large quality differences in the final products, says Associate Professor and project leader Margrethe Therkildsen from the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University. She continues:

- Nowadays it is actually possible to produce MSM that cannot be distinguished from ordinary minced chicken meat and actually is of good-quality, but since it is still classified as MSM, it will be sold as a low-value product. It also means that there is no incentive for the industry to increase the quality of these products.

These conclusions are drawn from the results of an EU project called MACSYS where a group of researchers from Aarhus University have collaborated with fellow researchers and companies from six EU countries to develop a method for analysing muscle structure degradation which is a prerequisite for classification based on degree of degradation.      

Reducing food waste

The whole purpose of the MACSYS project was therefore to develop analytical methods for differentiating the quality of MSM products and transfer the results to an online tool.

Each project partner has contributed knowledge on biochemical and histochemical methods of analysis, software for image analysis, mathematical modelling and online sensor techniques. The result is a fully-automated image analysis system and a prototype sensor for measuring such characteristics at-line.

- The idea is that slaughterhouses will be able to routinely order analyses of their products – and that down the line the prototype will be developed into an at-line method whereby slaughterhouses will be able to test the products and processes themselves as and when they need to. The aim is to increase the value of MSM with focus on quality, which means less food waste and a more sustainable poultry production, says Margrethe Therkildsen. She adds that the EU will also acquire a common and objective analytical method that deals specifically with the text in the legislation on the "degradation of muscle structure."

There are large potentials associated with changing the current legislation on poultry production – especially since the demand for chicken meat in Europe is expected to rise by six percent from 2009 to 2020. How the current legislation is implemented in the EU also varies from country to country, leading to competition on unequal terms.

- If the new analytical method becomes standard, we can create even trading conditions within the EU and the various countries can assure that the import of MSM raw material is based on objective quality criteria, says Margrethe Therkildsen.

Discussion of new standard

As part of the MACSYS project, a workshop was held in Brussels at the beginning of March where the new method was presented to the industry who then had the opportunity to discuss whether they could form consensus on its use. This was the first of a number of meetings that may later lead to a change in the legislation.

- We have now presented a tool that shows that it is actually possible to measure the degree of muscle tissue degradation. Now it is up to the industry to determine whether this is a tool they can use. Thereafter it is up to other people to determine whether a change in legislation is required – and to finally set threshold values to allow differentiation between quality groups, says Margrethe Therkildsen.


MACSYS held a CEN Workshop in Brussels on 1 and 2 March 2016. The objective of this workshop was to develop a CWA (CEN Workshop Agreement) on the technical requirements and methods for classifying the degree of muscle tissue degradation in mechanically separated chicken meat (MSM).

Read more

Learn more about MACSYS 

MACSYS has been a two-year project from January 2014 to March 2016 involving nine partners, including research institutes and commercial enterprises from six EU countries. The project has received €1,247,404 from the EU 7th Framework Programme. The nine partners are: Aarhus University, Denmark; University of Copenhagen, Denmark; Leatherhead Research Limited, UK; Max Rubner-Institut, Germany; Robert Damkjær A/S, Denmark; LIMA S.A.S., France; Carometec A/S, Denmark; SoftCritS, Spain, and Marel HF, Iceland.


Associate Professor Margrethe Therkildsen
Department of Food Science – Differentiated & Biofunctional Foods
Mail: margrethe.therkildsen@food.au.dk
Phone: +45 87158007

Senior Consultant Poul Henckel
Department of Food Science – Differentiated & Biofunctional Foods
Mail: Poul.Henckel@agrsci.dk
Mobile: +45 21263157

DCA, Poultry, Food