Airport X-Ray Machines Could Help Meat Industry Compete In Coming Years With Lab-Grown Meat
In Australia, the meat industry is testing whether airport X-ray machines can help slaughterhouse workers get heftier slices of the best cuts. Airport X-Ray Machines Could Help Meat Industry Compete In Coming Years With Lab-Grown Meat
Could Luggage Scanners Help Produce Better Beef?
Your next steak may come out of an airport-luggage scanner.
A roughly $16 million trial under way in Australia is investigating whether the same machines that X-ray checked bags at airports could help the beef industry extract heftier slices of the most premium cuts from cattle. The technology, if it works, could help farmers compete in coming years with lab-grown meat, which threatens to steal sales of lower-quality meat that is typically found in hamburgers.
Rapiscan Systems, a subsidiary of OSI Systems Inc., has already sent one of its luggage-scanning machines to Melbourne for the study. Scientists are scanning animal carcasses to see if the machine can produce highly detailed images that could inform slaughterhouse workers—ultimately, automated robots—exactly where to slice to get more accurate cuts.
Much of the work in beef slaughterhouses is still done by hand, and farmers sometimes worry about getting maximum value from their cattle. One study from Meat & Livestock Australia, an industry group that is co-funding the luggage-machine research with Rapiscan, estimated that better measurement of animals could boost the red-meat industry by some $300 million annually in Australia alone.
Some X-ray machines are already available for the slaughterhouse industry, but they provide less detailed, two-dimensional images, said Sean Starling, general manager of innovation at the livestock group.
In contrast, some of the luggage machines produce three-dimensional images and use similar technology as CT, or computed tomography, scans in hospitals.
“We’re using three-dimensional methods to look at bags, we could use three-dimensional methods to look at animals,” said Edward Morton, Rapiscan’s chief technical officer. “We just use a different detection algorithm. Instead of looking for bombs, we’re looking for lean meat yield,” a measure for the amount of saleable meat in an animal.
John Wyld, a longtime cattle and sheep farmer in the Australian state of Victoria, said it’s a good idea to research technologies that could provide better images. “There are significant differences between animals that look pretty much the same,” he said.
Two-dimensional images can differentiate between bone, muscle and fat, good enough for machines to do some cutting and get an idea of how much marketable meat is on a carcass, Mr. Starling said.
But three-dimensional images are needed to determine differences between muscle groups and obtain accurate measurements of marbling, or the streaks of fat in lean meat. All that is crucial in the beef industry, where a filet mignon fetches a higher price than a strip steak.
Slaughterhouses are an “ideal place for automation,” said Graham Gardner, an associate professor at Murdoch University who is working on the Rapiscan tests. “This is the sort of work that is dangerous because it uses knives. And humans don’t want to do that sort of work anymore.”
One possible obstacle to wide adoption is the cost. Peter Rizzo, chief executive of the Australian Meat Processor Corp., another industry group, said that “CT technology would be fabulous, but it’s very expensive.”