Spectrophotometers for Monitoring Shelf Life of Hamburger Meat Improves Marketability


Posted on August 7, 2017

Hamburgers are the All-American food and nothing screams summer like the smell of sizzling ground beef on a backyard grill. This summertime tradition has been around for ages and hamburger was once the staple food in the American household. I remember when I was growing up, my mom put hamburger in everything. From the ever-popular varieties of family casseroles to the excitement of the huge metal mixing bowl filled to the brim with ground beef, just waiting for the influx of guest to arrive. Old friends of mine still refer to my mom’s ‘famous hamburgers’ that she would meticulously mix by hand and form into the perfect patty.

While my mom adored her ground beef, she was also quite picky about the quality of meat she chose. We always bought our hamburger meat fresh from the butcher and my mom would carefully inspect the color before purchasing. “Always choose the freshest meat for the best burgers”, she would say, as the butcher would hold up a bright pink handful in his gloved hands. As an adult, I now consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of quality hamburgers and have developed some new favorite recipes that challenge even the best burger joints in town.

Fresh Ground Beef Color

If you were to walk up to the meat counter at your local supermarket, you would expect to see a fresh assortment of bright red meats. Colors of brown or gray might indicate to spoilage or that the meat has been sitting on the shelf a bit too long. But where do we get the notion that color relates to these traits? Color perception is actually an instinctual quality built into our DNA that protects our bodies from consuming potentially dangerous foods1. Like the bright colors of the poison dart frog that warns its prey not to eat, discolored meat products work the same within the internal safety coding systems of our brain.

We expect bright red coloring when it comes to ground beef, so monitoring the source of color is an important step in the quality control of meat products. Myoglobin is the protein found in ground beef that produces this bright red color we’ve come to expect2. This protein does not occur from blood circulating through the meat, but it is actually present in the muscle itself, fixated within the tissues. Spectrophotometers measure myoglobin using a color scale that quantifies even the slightest variation in red coloring. This information then provides important data, which can be used to predict color quality and shelf life expectancy in ground beef.

Spectrophotometers are a valuable tool for monitoring shelf life of hamburger meat during processing as well as after packaging. Color measurement instrumentation offers the versatility needed for continuous monitoring and quantification of changes that occur in ground beef color, which affect product quality and profit. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) receives numerous calls on a daily basis from consumers concerned about the color of meat products. In fact, “nearly 15% of retail beef is discounted in price due to surface discoloration, which corresponds to annual revenue losses of $1 billion”3. That is why many major beef producers rely on state-of-the-art color technology to consistently monitor changes that occur in muscle foods after slaughter. Color stability greatly influences marketability making the knowledge of myoglobin chemistry and color measurement technology necessary for economic stability within this industry.

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