The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), universally defines the quality of a product as: "The totality of features and characteristics of a product, process of service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs" (DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000), therefore quality, mainly referred to foodstuffs, is a concept which depends on a great number of variables, many of which are subjective or bound to ethnic or even family tradition factors (Centoducati et al., 1996; Sañudo et al., 1996; Morrissey et al., 1998; Rubino et al., 1999; Alfonso e Sañudo, 2000), but it can also be modified by the contemporary consumer's trend to demand standardized products, above all by the influence of advertising (Manfredini, 1992; Vergara e Gallego, 1999).
The fulfillment of the above mentioned demand is extremely complex and linked to a multifactorial whole of health, nutritional, technological and organoleptic components (Panella et al., 1995), which is very difficult to define in an unequivocal way and which is however extremely variable in space and time.
The quality traits to be preliminarily assesses are the hygienic and sanitary ones, such as the origin of meat from living animals not suffering from diseases, the absence in the meat of parasites and pathogenic microorganisms, the keeping behind the tolerance limits fixed by the laws in force for the concentration of drugs, antibiotics, pesticides, radioactive elements residues, and the total absence of traces of substances with an hormonal or antihormonal effect, for which the tolerance limit is zero, since they are banned by the Italian and European Union laws (Manfredini, 1992; Asso.Na.Pa., 1998).
The fulfilment of these quality requirements is above all left to the veterinary checks on meat performed by the Local Health Authorities but, since the check on the finished product can't totally guarantee its healthiness, often turning out to be belated, the recent Italian and European rules (Legislative decree 26/05/97, no 155, which came into force on April 1st 2000, adopting EEC Directives no 93/43 and 96/3) introduced also self-monitoring and self-certification, in accordance with HACCP system, performed by those involved in the production chain (Noce, 1999).
The HACCP system, that is Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, is used to detect and remove any possible source of hazard for human health that could be met along the production process (Silliker, 1989; Noce, 1999).
These hygienic and sanitary quality traits are taking an ever-increasing importance, making a great expansion of organic production predictable even in the ovine meat sector and, in perspective, putting Italian farms in a favourable position, since their frequent extensivity, and therefore their low environmental impact (Sañudo et al., 1998b), makes them particularly suitable to a sustainable and ecologically compatible agriculture system (Morbidini et al., 1999).
Beyond hygienic and sanitary factors, quality is also defined by sensory parameters, assessed on the raw product, which therefore affect mainly the consumer's choice to buy or not the product, like colour, flavour, grain, marbling, water holding capacity (Lanza and Biondi, 1990; Sarti, 1992c; Panella et al., 1995).
Other parameters can be instead valued at the moment of employment, that is on the cooked product, like taste, juiciness, tenderness, cooking loss and overall satisfaction (Lanza and Biondi, 1990; Panella et al., 1995) and can be determined in a laboratory with instrumental methods or by panel tests.
A panel test is an organoleptic assessment performed by a panel of selected tasters trained in specially organized training courses (Panella et al., 1995), that make use of several kinds of evaluation scales, with a highly variable number o degrees for the different parameters considered: for instance 8-point scales up to 100-point scales can be used (Young et al., 1997; Nute et al., 1999; Sañudo et al., 2000a).
It has been however noticed that not necessarily the panel tests results reflect the real consumers' likings, so much so that recent researches used as tasters the members of ordinary families, not trained as tasters (Alfonso and Sañudo, 2000).
It must finally remark that the parameters that should be assessed on cooked meat obviously take different values for different cooking methods, and that the choice of these methods is closely linked to the sort of meat which is traditionally consumed: in the Mediterranean countries the meat is yielded mostly from very young animals, and is usually grilled or roasted, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon countries, seen the consumption of more grown-up lambs, or even of sheep meat, the stew consumption is traditional, with a greater attention to seasoning rather than to the proper taste of meat, therefore poorly appreciating the meat of very young animals (Alfonso and Sañudo, 2000).
The red colour of meat, including ovine meat, is mainly given by myoglobin, a red pigment of the muscular tissue, which is prevailing in the muscles compared to blood haemoglobin (Lawrie, 1966). The meat colour changes can be ascribed to the chemical state of this pigment, that can vary from purplish-red (reduced myoglobin), to bright red (oxigenated myoglobin), to brown (oxidized myoglobin), while serious deterioration of meat, and therefore of pigment, can give anomalous colours as greyish-brown or green (Lawrie, 1966). Physical variations of the muscle (low pH, tight and very reflective myofibrill bundling) can instead give pale meat (Panella et al., 1995).
The colour is instrumentally measured with reflectometer, generally speaking according to the guidelines of CIE, Commission Internationale de lÉclairage (1976), or according to the Hunter method, striking the meat surface with standard illuminants, and reading a triad of parameters: L* (lightness), a* (Red-Green index) and b* (Blue-Yellow index), with a method hence named CIEL*a*b* or CIELAB, also using the derived parameters: Chroma (C), meaning how much white is mixed to a colour, and Hue (H), showing the predominant colour.
There is also a subjective colour evaluation, even if it's seldom used, being less satisfactory than the instrumental method, and it's also based on numeric scales, for instance with values from 1 (pale) to 5 (dark red) (Sañudo et al., 1996).
This parameter is intuitively clear for the consumer but it's however difficult to give a definition for it: Grau (1978) proposed: "chewability, softness, pastiness, juiciness, amount and sort of the residue after the mastication, in addition to the opposite traits as firmness, strength and fibres length".
It's generally defined as Shear Force, measured in kg/cm2 and it's determined with devices as bitetenderometer and Instron universal with Warner Bratzler Shear (Panella et al., 1995); it consists of the force needed to go through a piece of meat of a certain thickness or to penetrate in it down to a certain depth, but it can also be measured as crushing force of a meat sample (Lawrie, 1966).
Tenderness is closely linked to the connective tissue amount in the muscle and to its features (Grau, 1978), in particular to collagen, to its solubility and to the branching degree of its structures (Renieri et al., 1993), so much so that the measurement, with various methodologies, of the collagen amount, can give us useful information on meat tenderness (Avery and Bailey, 1995). A further method for tenderness evaluation is the measurement of collagen thermal solubility (Grau, 1978).
In a panel-test tenderness is evaluated as the opposite of the force needed to bite through a meat sample with the molar teeth: a greater tenderness corresponds to a lesser force used (Campo et al., 1999).
Tenderness is related to grain and texture, which are in their turn defined by the diameter of muscular fibers bundles, in which the muscle is divided by the connective tissue (Lusetti, 1983).
Grain is valued as the appearance of the cross-section of a cut of meat, perpendicular to muscular fibers. When the cut surface appears soft and velvety, the grain is defined as fine and it's indicative of a reduced diameter of fiber bundles, while if the cut surface is rough and dry, the grain is defined as coarse, and it's ascribable to a large diameter of the bundles and it's characteristic of aged animals; it must furthermore remark that different muscles have as a rule different grains (Lusetti, 1983).
Texture is instead assessed dissecting the muscle along the fibres and slightly stretching it: a firm texture is found in young and well fed animals while a loose texture is found in very young or aged, underfed or poorly fed animals. Even texture depends, besides, on the type of muscle (Lusetti, 1983).
According to Carlucci et al. (1999) the meat with regard to texture, can be defined as:
- tender, when low force is needed to chew the product,
- stringy, when fibres are perceived during the mastication,
- juicy, when water is perceived during the mastication,
- cohesive, when it's difficult to swallow.
In a panel test texture is evaluated as fibre perceived by the taster on a sample after four chews; also residue is evaluated, defined as the amount of connective tissue perceived by the taster before swallowing (Campo et al., 1999).
Meat flavour is defined as whole of taste and odour (Grau, 1978), but, according to some Authors, also includes texture and pH (Lawrie, 1966).
Meat flavour is due to adipose tissue, in a prevailing way compared to muscular tissue (Lanza and Biondi, 1990), since the former is able to "trap" flavours originated by other chemical compounds, in order to release them later, throughout cooking and, above all, because the volatile compounds which form throughout cooking originate from lipids oxidation, in addition to Maillard reaction between amino acids and carbonilic compounds (Elmore et al., 2000).
The flavour consists of the presence (and intensity), or absence, of a great number of single flavours, that can be agreeable like, for instance: sheepmeat, liver, poultry, boiled meat, stock, meaty, fruity, grassy, fat, oil, butter, or even disagreeable, as: animal (the odour of confined livestock), rancid, pungent, musty, fish, stale; it also includes tastes, defined as metallic, acidic, game, skatole/faecal, beef, pork/bacon, bitter, urine/kidney, mild, raw, mint, sticky, odd, cloth, barbecue, and odours as cabbage, roast, barnyard, heated rubber, plastic, ammonia (Rousset-Akrim et al., 1997; Young et al., 1997; Sañudo et al., 1998a; Hopkins et al., 1998; Carlucci et al., 1999; Fisher et al., 2000).
Among these flavours, the one who strongly characterizes ovine meat is that named sheepmeat, that is the typical odour of the meat from ovines, disregarding their age. This odour has been identified as the one which determines the non-liking in countries with a low per capita consumption, as those of continental Europe or United States, and vice versa as the main choice factor in the countries with high ovine meat consumption, like United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand (Rousset-Akrim et al., 1997; Young et al., 1997; Rubino et al., 1999; Alfonso and Sañudo, 2000).
This flavour has recently been the subject of many researches and it has been established that it originates from branched chain fatty acid (BCFA) the most important of which for flavour formation are 4-methyloctanoic and 4-methyloctanoic (Young et al., 1997), and from phenolic compounds originating from chlorophyll and lignin ruminal fermentation (Panella et al., 1995; Young et al., 1997). It seems to increase with the age of the animal and, according to some Author, it's higher in the males over the puberty than in females (Rousset-Akrim et al., 1997).
However even linear-chain fatty acids are involved in flavour and odour intensity, which seems to be positively correlated in particular with stearic acid, oleic acid and linolenic acid, and negatively with linoleic acid. The fact that such higher flavour intensity be appreciated or not by the consumer is, as seen before, closely linked to individual and collective dietary traditions, habits and customs (Sañudo et al. 2000a; Alfonso and Sañudo, 2000).
This sensation is extremely important to define the liking of meat: it is possible to draw a distinction between an immediate component, given by the moisture sensation during the first chews, due to the fast release of fluids by the meat, and an extended component, mainly due to the stimulus of salivation given by the meat fats. This explains why meat from young animals can initially give a juiciness sensation, and then be perceived as dry, due to its poor amount of intramuscular fat (Lawrie, 1966).
Juiciness is evaluated by the panel tests as the amount of liquid released by the sample after a certain number of chews, two as a rule (Campo et al., 1999), or even as total humidity perceived in the mouth after mastication (Sañudo et al., 2000b).
The two different methods approximately correspond to the two different components mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, and can lead to evaluate in a different way the same sample of meat (Sañudo et al., 2000b).
Obviously all the factors determining water losses, as thawing or some cooking method, determine a decrease in juiciness, which is closely linked to water holding capacity (Lawrie, 1966).
The Water Holding Capacity (WHC), depends on free moisture (representing more than 95% of total water content of the muscle) that is the water not chemically bound to proteins, but physically held by them, in a continuity relation with the chemically bound water. A low water holding capacity means a higher amount of water expelled during mastication, therefore a higher juiciness (Lawrie, 1966), and it is positively correlated with tenderness (Gigli et al., 1994).
The method commonly used to evaluate WHC is the simple but accurate enough Grau and Hamm (1953) technique, consisting of subjecting meat, in strictly set condition, to a certain pressure, such that is allowed the oozing of free water but not of the bound one, which remains in the muscle (Grau, 1978). Other more accurate methods make use of centrifugation with defined parameters (Castellini et al., 1998).
The WHC is not uniform, but it changes depending on the individual, breed, age, sex, diet, rearing, slaughtering method and it also changes from muscle to muscle (Lawrie, 1966).
As previously said, the Italian consumers don't like exceedingly fat meats, though a modest amount of marbling and subcutaneous fat gives to the meat some favourable traits, as higher tenderness, juiciness, flavour and palatability (Jeremiah, 1998; Sañudo et al., 2000a; Sañudo et al., 2000b). The presence of a thick enough subcutaneous fat layer has also the favourable effect of reducing ovine meat dehydration when it is frozen (Renieri et al., 1993).
Usually the consumers don't like foods with a high calorific value, or deemed as such (Renieri et al., 1993); from recent researches emerges that, even though fat percentages in Italian meat are extremely low, the consumer has the mistaken perception of a lipidic content much higher than real (DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000).
The recent findings of dietetics attribute a great importance for the human health to the presence in the diet of unsaturated fatty acids, to the unsaturated/saturated ratio, to the estimate of atherogenic and thrombogenic indexes, that evaluates the incidence in food of the saturated fatty acids, dangerous for the arteries, in particular lauric acid C12:0, miristic acid C14:0 and palmitic acid C16:0 compared to unsaturated acids.
Even more recent is the attention towards the presence of polyunsaturated fatty acids of the n-3 and n-6 types, mainly a-linolenic acid (C 18:3, n-3), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, C 20:5, n-3), docosapentaenoic acid (DPA, C 22:5, n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, C 22:6, n-3).
These acids can be mainly found in fish meat and, to a lesser extent, in ruminants' meat, for the most part in the phospholipids (Elmore et al., 2000; Fisher et al., 2000): even these fatty acids are important to lower the risk of coronary disease and to decrease the blood thrombogenesis hazard (Enser et al., 1996).
Therefore there's a growing number of researches aimed to know and modify by means of the diet the fatty acids composition of ovine meat (Rowe et al., 1999; Elmore et al., 2000) which, as that of the other ruminants, shows a prevalence of saturated fatty acids but, compared for instance to beef, displays a good amount of n-3, and a better, therefore lower, n-6/n-3 ratio (Enser et al., 1998b).
It has been verified that this ratio is as much favourable as higher is the dietary n-3 input: for instance the grass of the pastures is particularly rich in linoleic acid and other n-3 (Enser et al., 1998b).
It could be objected that, starting from weaning, when the lamb's rumen functions begin to be well developped, the rumen microorganisms hydrogenate the most part of the unsaturated fatty acids coming from the diet, but a significant part of them can anyway get over the rumen and reach undamaged the intestine, where it is absorbed, being then carried by the blood to the adipose tissue (Enser et al., 1998b; Sañudo et al., 2000a).
It seems that the above mentioned better composition of ovine meat, compared to beef, is due to a lower ruminal digestion and oxidation by the whole body (Enser et al. 1998b), and however researches have been performed to reach a further decrease of ruminal hydrogenation by means of additives (Zezza et al., 1996; Braghieri et al., 1999).
The difference due to rumen development, and therefore to the age, it is however detectable: according to Cifuni et al. (2000), a slightly higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids can be found in the adipose tissue of weaned lambs, compared to unweaned ones, while other Authors report for heavy lambs, compared to suckling lambs, a decrease of the saturated and unsaturated fatty acids ratio, due to an increase of unsaturated fatty acids like oleic, linoleic and linolenic and a decrease of palmitic (Sportelli, 1996); some other Authors, then (Petrova et al., 1994; Banskalieva, 1997) don't ascribe to the age an important role in the definition of this ratio, even if in these latter two researches the comparison is between groups of all weaned lambs.
The fatty acids composition also gathers a great prominence on flavour, since during the cooking they release several volatile compounds, which give rise to the peculiar organoleptic traits of the ovine meat, with a special effectiveness on this purpose of the polyunsaturated fatty acids, specially BCFA (branched chain fatty acids) and n-3 (Fisher et al., 2000; Elmore et al., 2000).
To sum up, it's not possible to say that ovine meat is a preferential source of the essential for the health unsaturated fatty acids, but it shows anyway a good balance in the composition of such compounds and, in areas with a low per capita fish consumption, it can supply a considerable share of n-3 requirements, anyway in the frame of a balanced diet (Enser et al., 1996, 1998b).
The pH is determined at slaughtering (pH0) and after 24 hours (pH24), this is the first marker of meat quality and allows us to assess the potentiality of animal muscle to yield good meat; this parameter also gives a measure of the attitude of this food to be stored: actually low pH values reduce the microbial growth and thus prevent any prospective spoilage (DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000).
In order to yield meat of good quality the pH must decrease after slaughtering, for the increase of lactic acid in the muscle, originated by the post-mortem glicogen glycolysis; this decrease must be gradual because, if it was too quick, protein denaturation and water holding capacity lowering would take place (Lawrie, 1966; Lanza and Biondi, 1990).
The pH is also modified by the storage method: freezing determines a pH decrease compared to the mere refrigeration (Moore et al., 1998).
Moreover if the animal finds itself in stress conditions, above all immediately before the slaughtering, the glicogen muscular reserves are reduced, cutting the pH decrease down. due to glycolysis: the pH can't thus reach low enough values and the meats appear DFD, that is dark, firm and dry (Lawrie, 1966; Sarti, 1992c; Renieri et al., 1993; DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000), whereas a too fast pH decrease can yield PSE (pale, soft and exudative) meat (Renieri et al., 1993).
Each of the enzymatic complex which are active post mortem in the muscle, shows peculiar optimum values of pH, and therefore meat tenderness, flavour, water holding capacity and colour are influenced by pH, that therefore takes a relevant importance in muscle transformations after slaughtering (Panella et al., 1995; DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000).
In particular Young et al, (1993) consider a higher pH of the muscles as correlated with a more intense "sheepmeat" flavour and odour in Merino lambs and Rousset-Akrim et al. (1997) maintain that the issue during the cooking of volatile compounds, sources of meat flavours and odours, decrease its quantity and quality with the increase of raw meat pH.
drip losses and shrink losses
These parameters measure liquid losses of meat in various situations, they are closely linked to water holding capacity, and are all measured as percentage of fluids lost compared to the initial weight of the samples.
Losses must however be considered as a factor impairing quality, since they involve a juiciness decrease and a loss not only of water, but also of water-soluble nutritious compounds of meat (DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000).
The weep losses take place on raw meat but not on freezed meat and can be assessed, for instance, as chilling loss, placing the samples to drip in a refrigerator for 24 hours (Lawrie, 1966; Panella et al., 1995). These losses can negatively affect even the choice at the moment of the purchase by the consumer, who doesn't like the sight of the exudate that grows under the raw meat, ascribing it to a poor freshness of the product (DellOrto and Sgoifo Rossi, 2000).
The drip losses are linked, besides factors intrinsic to meat, also to technological factors, between which the freezing speed, that must be high, because a long freezing time determines the growth of bulky ice cristals that, destroying the cellular structure of the muscle, jeopardize its capacity to hold water and, more generally, fluids (Grau, 1978; Lawrie, 1966). As above mentioned, this damage can be lessened by the protecting effect of subcutaneous fat on the muscle, slowing down the temperature decrease in freezing (Renieri et al., 1993).
The shrink or cooking losses concern, besides water, also the fat (Grau, 1978); even these losses negatively affect the consumers perception of the product, leading them to think the product they purchased is exceedingly rich in water, and therefore has a poor nutritional value, and to suspect frauds, as the use of hormones, not disregarding the above mentioned objective juiciness loss.
Cooking losses are influenced by temperature, therefore by cooking method, since high temperatures determine a more marked protein denaturation and a larger loss by fat melting, mainly in cuts rich in adipose tissue. Moreover, cooking temperatures being equal, the losses are higher if this temperature is gradually reached, while a fast heating causes the forming of a surface layer of coagulated proteins (browning) that reduces the losses (Lawrie, 1966; Lusetti, 1983). More generally, wrong or unsuitable cooking methods can deeply affect meat tenderness, juiciness and flavour, with much more evident negative effects of any loss that could be caused by genetic or environmental factors (Renieri et al., 1993).
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