Researchers from the University of Extremadura in Spain have developed a method that allows the properties of hams and whole loins to be determined using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the same non-invasive technique used in medicine.
The method has already been made available to the meat industry, the researchers said.
MRI is commonly used in medicine to look at organs and structures inside the human body, but now researchers from the Meat & Meat Products Institute (IProCar) of the University of Extremadura have applied this same technology for something very different: knowing the characteristics of Iberian hams and loins without needing to destroy them.
Once the images are taken, the scientists analyze them with computer vision algorithms and extract numerical values to which they apply statistical methods. In this way, the quality characteristics of meat products can be predicted.
"The technique allows knowing parameters such as the amount of fat, moisture, color and some sensory attributes of the product and, in the case of ham, also monitoring the salt diffusion during the different stages of the maturation process," IProCar member Trinidad Pérez Palacios explained.
The studies carried out using this methodology have been published in several scientific journals, such as the Journal of Food Engineering, where this year Extremadura researchers presented a paper focused on the application of texture algorithms to three-dimensional MRI images to predict the quality of pork loins.
According to the authors, the combined MRI/computer vision technology is an alternative to the destructive quality control methods currently used and offer results in almost real time.
"We put at the disposal of the meat industry an effective method to obtain images of any meat piece — not only loins and hams — in a harmless and non-invasive way, allowing, in addition, its subsequent commercialization," Pérez Palacios said. "Its implementation in the meat industry is only a matter of time."