The endless possibilities of meat
Jenna Heller talks to the scientist who came up with meat chocolate and who says meat is more than just a steak on a plate.
Fancy your meat proteins incorporated into ice-cream or chocolate? Or a cut of meat individualised for your unique digestion and health needs? Whatever the future holds for meat products, AgResearch's Mustafa Farouk will be at the forefront of it.
The senior food technologist, who found a home with his family in New Zealand after leaving behind an unstable political climate in Nigeria, is driven by the opportunity to stretch the traditional thinking of the meat industry in his adopted country.
At the New Zealand Agricultural Fieldays last year, Farouk created a mini-sensation with a new Meat Lover's Chocolate product which attracted huge interest from media and visitors to the big event on the agriculture calendar. The excitement it generated has led to further development of the product, and AgResearch is now working with confectionary experts on how to extend its shelf life.
Farouk is trying to anticipate how else meat will be consumed in the future.
"For instance, our science team are targeting two growth areas: the elderly and the very young. We're doing the science now that'll allow us to incorporate meat proteins into products that are familiar, like ice cream or chocolate, but that will enable people who are either not interested in eating meat or incapable of eating meat in its usual form.
"How can we bring meat nutrients to combine with other sources like vegetables or other animal products? How might we develop products containing meat with a range of consistencies and textures for consumption? There is strong interest by clinicians in this work because they feel this could be good for people in retirement homes or aged care.
"We understand that meat currently is consumed mostly because it tastes good. But is that the only way we should look at meat? What other function does this meat serve for you? Our science team are mapping the animal carcass to find out how we might use certain cuts to add even more value and we aim to provide the science to the industry, including chefs, so they can place a steak in front of you that has been prepared based on your individual health or performance needs. Things like understanding digestibility qualities, or how a certain cut fabricated and prepared in a certain way might be useful for someone's unique health needs."
Another area that Farouk is excited about is developing a way to commercialise the meat "dry-aging process".
"With aging, you increase the meat quality in terms of tenderness, aroma, flavour – the stuff that consumers desire. Today, meat is vacuum-packed and kept in a chilled storage to age. With dry-aging, on the other hand, the meat loses moisture and develops specific desirable characteristics – tenderness and flavour. This is an expensive process and it's why dry-aging is mostly an artisan process. We're trying to develop a dry-aging process that can be done for commercial exports."
Farouk, who in 2015 received a Queen's Service Medal for services to the Muslim community, has also made a significant contribution to the ability of the meat industry in New Zealand to satisfy halal requirements. Halal is Arabic, meaning 'permissible' and halal food is that which adheres to Islamic law as defined in the Koran.
"I've done and continue to do a lot of work in this area allowing the scientific community to better understand halal and halal principles. New Zealand is a major exporter of halal meats and we've developed the world-leading technology that enables us to meet both the religious requirements and the animal welfare requirements. This development has allowed the industrialisation of the process itself."
Farouk had a desire to give back to his community instilled in him back home in Nigeria, where a professor suggested he study something that would be relevant to his people.
"I knew I either wanted to go into medicine or do something with livestock. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that I do something with meat to help my people."
He spent time in the United States and got his PhD from Michigan State University, and eventually returned to Nigeria where he taught and did research at the University of Maiduguri and worked with the community. When the Nigerian political climate became unstable, he decided to go back to the US to work but just as he'd returned, a position opened up at the Meat Industry Research Institute in New Zealand.
"Again, a professor of mine suggested that I apply for that job and go to New Zealand for a year or two to brush up on my skills before returning to the US for a faculty position. So in 1996, I came here with two young children and found out that I enjoyed the work, and that this place is very good to raise a family. I've been here ever since."
As a food scientist, Farouk says he gets a kick when he sees a process he's helped develop being used and making a difference.
"I feel that I'm contributing to keeping the meat industry in New Zealand thriving and meat workers in paid employment. I think I get the most satisfaction from knowing that I'm doing something that helps real people: everyone from the farmer who has been able to turn his fortunes around because we've introduced something new for him, to a meat worker because we've innovated something."