In defense of hanging

Only a few years ago, using terms like 'meat maturation' in marketing literature would have advertising gurus reaching for the delete button. Now, perhaps in a sign of the times, the public likes nothing better than reading all about a good hanging.

Chloe Smith reports

I t is perhaps a sign of the average supermarket shopper's knowledge of meat that maturation has in recent years become a marketing term.

Until recently, supermarket beef packaging did not tell consumers much about the method of production, and in a lot of cases, it is still rare to get many details. But, perhaps in reaction to growing consumer interest about traceability and methods of food production, some supermarkets now advertise how long their premium-range beef is matured for.

The process of turning a freshly-slaughtered beef carcase into meat that is tender enough to be palatable requires the muscles to relax, and the proteins in the flesh to start to break down. Traditionally, this is done by hanging the carcase in a cold place for weeks on end, enough time for the flesh to become tender and the flavour to develop as it dries in the air, but before putrification sets in. The longer the maturation, the stronger and 'gamier' the flavour.

In 2003 Sainsbury's launched its Jamie Oliver range of beef, which is matured by 24 hours of hip-suspension and then hanging the carcase for a further 20 days. One lesson swiftly learnt upon its launch was that although customers were discerning enough to appreciate that it had been matured, the phrase 'matured on the bone for 21 days' had to be changed to 'matured for 21 days'. It turned out the word 'bone' was putting people off.

Hanging the carcase, although traditional, is not the only way to mature meat however. Meat can also be matured in a vacuum-packed bag. It still has to be hung to allow rigor mortis to pass, but 48 hours is usually sufficient.

This method is considerably cheaper than hanging and although it is common knowledge within the meat industry that most supermarket beef is matured in this way, what is perhaps surprising is that it is not only the standard and cheaper ranges that are vac-pack matured, but some of the premium ranges as well.

Tesco's premium beef range, under its Finest, advertises on the pack that it is matured for 28 days, but is hung for just six to eight days on the bone before being put in a vaccum pack bag to finish the maturation process.

Asda prefers not to talk about its methods. Its Extra Special beef is marketed as 'mature' but no imformation will be provided on how long for, or what methods are used.

Similarly, Morrisons refuse to comment on their beef. Marks & Spencer, however, is keen to discuss methods of maturation as its >>

>> Special Reserve beef is dry aged for a minimum of 28 days on the bone. M&S also boasts that it is the only retailer that has been allowed under beef labelling laws to label all sirloin, rib-eye and fillet steak as "guaranteed tender".

Waitrose is happy to confirm that while its dry-aged beef is matured on the bone for up to 14 days, other ranges are matured in vacuum-packed bags. There is obviously enormous variety within the industry (multiples and independents alike) and methods of maturation stir up strong feelings, especially for those whose business brand depends on using traditional methods.

Graeme Roy, director of the Well-Hung Meat Company is adamant that meat hung on the bone has a flavour and texture far superior to meat matured in a vacuum pack.

"We hang carcases on the bone for 21 days because it makes the meat tender and flavoursome. The flavour is the real difference," he says. "It has a stronger flavour and some of our customers say it is quite gamey.

"Our meat is beautifully tender," he continues. "It has a tremendous flavour that melts in the mouth. It is so tender that cutting into it is like a hot knife through butter."

He holds equally passionate views about vac-pack maturation: "Anyone can stick a piece of meat in a bag that's sealed and then leave it and sell it 21 days later," he says. "One reason meat is vac-packed and refrigerated to mature is to save money. It's very easy to do on a large scale, it is less expensive and less time-consuming. Time and space cost money. You could probably pile up 100 sirloins in the space it takes to hang one carcase, but we wouldn't compromise on quality to save money."

Despite this, Kim Matthews, meat scientist at the MLC, thinks that in scientific terms, vacuum-pack maturation is a legitimate way to tenderise meat. "The object of maturation is tenderising. Enzymes break down proteins, which makes the meat tender. These enzymes function both in the air and in vacuum packed meat," he says.

The other purpose of maturation is developing flavour. "Some say this is done best in air on the bone," says Matthews, "but there is no scientific literature that proves this either way."

For the meat industry there are definite downsides to hanging carcases, not least the fact the space required costs a lot of money. Anglo Beef Processors (ABP), who supply Sainsbury's, had to invest £4m in bespoke chilled hanging chambers to process Jamie Oliver beef. The weight-loss that results from air-drying is also expensive: "In financial terms hanging meat in air on the bone leads to weight loss and discolouration, which means some meat has to be trimmed away," says Matthews.

"We do have to trim the carcases harder, because the meat becomes drier at the edges," agrees Joanna Discombe, of ABP.

Matthews can only conclude that "there are pros and cons with both methods". Both hanging and vac-pack maturation are legitimate, but it is clear to most (presuming the animals the beef is from are of the same quality), which is the superior product, not only by taste, but also by the price.

However, it seems a shame that at a time when consumers are becoming more interested in where their food comes from, and may even be aware beef has to be matured, that a single term is being applied to such a wide range of methods, with varying price-tags.