Carol Lorenzen sheds light on prolonging meat color

In the United States, over a billion dollars is lost annually due to unsold and “spoiled” meat in delis and supermarkets. These meats are not “spoiled” in the traditional sense, but their color appears a bit more brown, green or gray than red, making them look less than appealing for purchase. Researchers at MU’s meat science division of animal sciences are looking to remedy this problem for meat producers and purchasers.

Carol Lorenzen has garnered over $2.5 million in grants for her research in meat science at MU. She has spent the majority of her career focusing on meat tenderness, but she and her colleagues have shifted focus over the last few months toward meat color, specifically that of ground beef and steak. This could not only save grocers hundreds of dollars on perfectly good cuts of meat, but also help buyers increase their purchasing options at the deli counter.

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Dr. Carol Lorenzen sitting at a table inside the MU Animal Science Research Center. Photo By John Heniff

Over the last few months, Lorenzen and her team have been investigating the effect of LED and fluorescent lighting on ground beef. Although most deli sections at the Hy-Vees and Lucky’s of the world use fluorescent or halogen lighting, light-emitting diode (LED) lighting has been shown to prolong the color of beef two days longer than under fluorescent lighting, according to the research by Lorenzen and her colleagues.

In a previous experiment, researchers took 20 USDA “Select Grade” top rounds of beef and divided them into two low-fat and high-fat groups. The ground beef was formed into patties, wrapped in plastic rap, and placed on Styrofoam trays in deli cases with different light sources, including low-ultraviolet fluorescent light and a standard LED light. One patty was exposed to no light of any kind. After a week in the cases, the patties were examined to get a better understanding of the particular color of the meat.

The next step in the research involves using whole muscle steaks. Jade Cooper, a graduate assistant advised by Lorenzen, is the head researcher for this leg of the experiment. Cooper, 22, originally completed her undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State University before beginning her graduate work at MU last January.

“In high school, I was big into FFA and a lot of what I did speeches on was on food waste,” she says. “So it’s always been kind of an interest to me in how we continue to feed the world and some of the steps that we’re gonna have to take to really make sure that we can keep meeting the demand of the population.”

The steaks will be examined over the course of the week on days one, three, five and seven, much like the previous experiment. The new slate of experiments will use a high ultraviolet fluorescent light like the variety used in many retail stores across the nation, according to Cooper and her colleagues.

Meat research isn’t just about extending product shelf life. It can also have implications on the growing food waste problem across the United States. The EPA has begun an initiative to reduce the amount of food waste coming through landfills across the nation, including Columbia’s. According to Adam White, superintendent of the Columbia Sanitary Landfill, around 165,000 tons (around 700-750 tons per day) of materials were brought in over the course of 2014. The EPA estimates that food waste makes up 21 percent of the waste found in landfills throughout the U.S.

Another potential beneficiary to Lorenzen’s research is the supermarket industry, which loses millions of dollars every year throwing out perfectly good products. Anything that helps entice the customer in terms of freshness or delectability of a product is a plus for the business. Jeff Bruce recognizes the importance of selling meat that is fresh and well packaged in a store’s meat department. Bruce is the director of meats and seafood for Lucky’s Markets across the Midwest. “Our meat category is one of the top categories in our store,” he says. “If we’ve got dark cuts out in our cases or poor craftsmanship, we’re going to be driving away customers there, and once they see that experience…it really does stick with them.” According to Bruce, Lucky’s stores use halogen lighting in its meat and deli sections rather than LED lighting sources. Bruce cites the expensive cost of LED lighting as well as an emphasis on providing fresh products rather than extending their shelf life.

Cooper is excited to be working with a dedicated and passionate educator like Lorenzen. “Her mind is just constantly working and she’s very up to date with a lot of the things that are going on in the administration,” she says. “She’s very well rounded when it comes to the meat industry and I feel very honored to work under her and for her to kind of show me the ropes.”

Lorenzen has been interested in animal science since she was a child. She grew up on six acres of land in Washington state with a veterinarian and animal lover for a mom. Three rabbits, two dogs, a cat and a pony lived alongside the family of five, and Lorenzen began taking an interest in the 4-H club at age 9.

Lorenzen says her father, an oceanographer, set the standard for the work she would accomplish as a professor and researcher. “I knew more about what I was getting myself into by becoming an academic,” she says. “That was my goal when I started grad school. Everything I did was to get to that point.”

She originally pursued an undergraduate degree in animal science with an emphasis in nutrition at Washington State University. But after enrolling in some of the animal science department’s classes on meat science, she realized that was her calling. She switched her emphasis from nutrition to meat science, the study of the composition, makeup, nutritional value and the appeal of different kinds of meat.

After graduating from Washington State, Lorenzen continued her higher education at one of the best meat science colleges in the United States: Texas A&M University.  With only a letter of application, her transcript and a phone call with Jeffery Savell,the head of Texas A&M’s meat science division and one of her eventual mentors. Lorenzen was accepted into the program and continued her education while having access to one of the most highly touted meat science programs in the nation at her disposal. She eventually gained her master’s and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M in animal sciences with a specialty in lamb, although the bulk of her research throughout her career would come from working with beef in Missouri, one of largest “cow-calf” producing states in the nation. She was hired by MU on April 1, 1999.

She is a trailblazer for women in the study of meat science at a time long before women made up a large number of enrollees. She was one of Savell’s first female students who wanted to be a meat scientist, and she would go on to be the first female student to teach in the Texas A&M “Slaughter and Fabrication” lab, where she taught her students to slaughter and properly cut up the animals. She also became the first woman in the over 100-year history of the meat science department at MU to become a full professor holding a Ph.D, which she reached in 2011.

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A whole muscle steak that is prepared to be examined by researchers at the MU Animal Science Research Center. Photo By John Heniff

Beyond her training, Lorenzen credits her ability to shake things off and ability to “soldier on in the face of rejection” and what she calls her “stick-to-it-iveness” as the reasons why she has been so successful in her field. “I’ve always tried to keep my eyes on the prize,” she says.

During her career, Lorenzen has received a number of prestigious awards from her field as well as the university. In 2005, she received an achievement award from the American Meat Science Association and won a “Meats Research Award” from the American Society of Animal Science in 2014. “That means a lot to me because that is professional recognition from my peers,” Lorenzen says. “It shows that I am making a contribution.”

Lorenzen is also the proud owner of two cats and a Dachshund. She jokingly says, “I thought a meat scientist should have a ‘hot dog.’” In fact, she says that many of her colleagues in the meat science realm also have Dachshunds as pets.

With the current set of experiments ongoing and results a few months from completion, Cooper adds that “we do it to better things for the consumer, and I think that’s really important,” she says. Lorenzen also believes the experiments are beneficial to help the meat industry utilize more cuts from beef cattle, especially cuts of ground beef.”If we can affect that and give more shelf life to that, then that’s giving more value to the entire meat carcass,” she says.

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Whole muscle steaks are cut before being examined at the MU Animal Science Research Center. Photo by John Heniff

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