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Eyes on top quality

What makes meat tender and juicy? Since 1990, researcher Anne Listrat has been studying just that. She conducts research on the quality of beef in INRA’s Herbivores Joint Research Unit in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

Anne Listrat, researcher at the Joint Research Unit for Herbivores at INRA Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, manipulates a cryotome to obtain histological sections. © INRA, SIMONIN Gérard
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 01/04/2019
Published on 08/03/2016

For 15 years now, beef consumption has been on the wane in France. This is due to tough competition from white meats, a negative image (“mad cow” crisis, etc.), but also customer dissatisfaction when it comes to the wide and unpredictable variability in the taste of beef. “To remedy this, it’s important to better understand what determines the quality of beef”, says Anne.

A question of taste and minor molecules

Fibres, fat and connective tissue of bovine muscle...

Bovine muscle is made up of three types of tissue: muscle fibres, connective tissue, and adipose tissue. “The tenderness, taste and juiciness of meat depend in part on the breed of cow, factors of production, but also on the type of muscle and the characteristics of the tissues that make up the muscle”. In her studies, Anne focuses on the molecules that make up connective tissue: a major protein called “structure protein”, collagen - which, after being cooked for a long time becomes gelatine - and minor proteins such as proteoglycans, decorin, tenascin-X and type XIV collagen, etc.

Minor molecules attach themselves to the structural molecules of connective tissue, but also to other minor molecules. All of these molecules interact with each other to form a close-knit mesh that is intimately linked to cells from adipose tissue and fibres.  According to my initial findings, variations in the proportion of minor proteins of connective tissue, and probably the resulting mesh, influence the texture of beef and the cooking method that best suits it.

... determine the quality of meat

Anne recently identified several minor molecules linked to the sensorial quality of meat, and is getting ready to test results with modern equipment in her unit. “We are using laboratory procedures that are faster and more cost-effective than before, notably near infrared spectroscopy. This system allows us to measure several muscular characteristics at a time after calibration, without resorting to biochemistry. We are also increasingly turning to in silico analysis, which allows us to use bioinformatics to forecast molecules present in different physiological situations, without experimental data”.

A long love affair with agriculture and food, scientifically-speaking

Drawn to nature and animals as a child, Anne completed her secondary studies at Brioude Bonnefond agricultural college and earned a baccalaureat in Maths and Natural Sciences. She went on to earn a higher technician’s diploma in animal production at the agricultural college of Limoges Les Vaseix in 1984, and enrolled in university in Clermont-Ferrand. Her undergraduate degrees in Life Sciences and cellular and molecular physiology, and graduate degree in Genetics, all focused on animal biology.
“In 1989, in preparation for starting my higher degree in food sciences, I did an internship at INRA”, Anne recounts. “There, I worked on muscular enzymes that come into play in the maturation process of meat after slaughter”. Anne then went on to pursue a doctoral thesis on the origin of muscle in cow foetuses: “In the 1990s, we were trying to learn how to produce greater quantities of meat by looking into the mechanisms of a growth factor, known as the insulin-like growth factor (IGF), in muscular development. Today, we’re more concerned with the quality of meat”.  

Mini-CV

• 52 years old, single
• Author and co-author of 54 scientific articles  
• Supervisor of 15 Masters dissertations
• Accreditation to supervise research, 2008
• Higher degree and PhD in Food Sciences, University of Clermont-Ferrand, 1989 – 1994
• Masters in Genetics, 1988
• Higher technician’s diploma in animal production, 1984