Best in Beef Research 2023

Welcome to the second annual Best in Beef Research Awards. An entirely arbitrary celebration of beef research. By Nicola Dennis.

In Livestock17 Minutes

THIS YEAR WE are limited to open-access research – science that’s not locked behind paywalls – because taxpayer-funded research belongs to the people! And because Sci-Hub, the website that everyone uses to get around the stupid paywalls, is busy with a legal battle in India. Essentially, the hopes and dreams of global academics rely on a 34-year-old Kazakhstani woman winning a copyright case in India.

You see, publicly funded researchers are expected to pay journals to publish their articles, then volunteer their time to peer-review research when requested, and then pay $50 an article to read other people’s articles. It’s a silly system and the United States Government plans to put an end to it. The paywalls I mean. By 2026, all federally funded research must be free to read as soon as it is published. Until then, all hopes are on the speedy reinstatement of Sci-Hub.

But anyway, on with the show!


Some poor souls cannot enjoy meat and dairy products because they have been bitten by ticks. There is a Lone Star tick that lurks around the eastern regions of the United States and Canada, an all- round bad guy spreading deadly viruses. But its bite can also trigger an overreaction to a sugar called alpha-gal which is also present in red meat, gelatin and some dairy products.

Once your immune system is on the lookout for this innocent sugar, then a bite of beef can trigger a deadly allergic reaction between three and eight hours later. This condition is a nightmare – not just because it is bad for the beef business, but also because alpha-gal is in so many food products and the delayed allergic reaction makes it so hard to pinpoint what is going on. In fact the cause of this disease has only come to light in the last 15 years after sufferers kept reacting to a bowel cancer medicine Cetuximab, which contains alpha-gal.

Our winners gain the prize for torturing Lone Star ticks.

Technically the researchers at Pepperdine University in California were exposing ticks to changes in humidity to see what they can survive. But this involved 72 of the nasty suckers perishing inside climatic chambers and that seemed like a great start.

The research found that Lone Star ticks died faster in drier conditions, but were still surviving for about 11 days at 32% relative humidity and temperatures of 20–30C. They turned out to be good climbers too, climbing higher than the other types of ticks in the study (up to the top of the 20cm container they were held in) while looking for a meal. Drier conditions just made them even more determined to climb in search of a meal, which wasn’t great for all the beef lovers wandering past them. These are not necessarily uplifting findings, and for that I apologise.

The good news, I guess, is that the tick that causes Lyme disease (not related to beef at all) is a bit of a weakling and the researchers don’t think it will do well with global warming.

Honourable mention to the paper that was testing the blood of alpha-gal allergic people and confirming that their immune system doesn’t have a problem with them eating poultry.


Why ask customers if they like the beef patties they are eating when you can analyse their facial expressions using FaceReader technology instead? If that sounds fun and not at all creepy to you, then you will be thrilled to learn that this is a homegrown project involving Lincoln University and AgResearch. I, for one, will need some time to get used to the idea.

I was also slightly traumatised by automated eye scanning to monitor vitamin A levels in Japanese Black cattle. I liked the sound of that until I realised that this is to prop up a practice where finishing cattle are purposely deprived of vitamin A (an important vitamin for vision) to improve the marbling of their meat. To put it very bluntly, they want to monitor eye damage in their cattle to make sure they are causing their desired level of malnutrition. I would like to use FaceReader to scan your face as you read that last sentence.

The imaginary prize goes to Utah State University for their Cameras for Conservation research. We’ve got it good in New Zealand; our native species are far too meek to feast on our cattle. Everywhere else in the world, there’s something lurking in the bushes that wouldn’t mind a taste of beef. The trouble is that many threatened predators, such as jaguar, rely on private farmland to survive.

For the most part, the predators are hunting smaller wildlife, such as white-tail deer and rodents that also frequent the farmland. But they also help themselves to 3–5% of a South American beef farmer’s herd, which makes them no friends.

This research reviews schemes where cameras were set up on private farmland and landowners were paid significant money (US$50–220) every time they successfully photographed a big cat, bear, wolf, etc, on their land. Basically, all a farmer needs is a good living for taking care of the land.

Getting paid for pics, incentivising farmers not to hunt threatened predators but to also spare the wild prey species that make up most of the predators diet sounds like a good idea. Working with farmers to preserve the environment rather than beating them around the head with regulations? Who knows, it might catch on.

Honourable mention: Wageningen University has programmed drones to monitor the size and weight of grazing cattle. Unfortunately, the machine is still flummoxed by sleeping cows.


You don’t need to know what Bayesian statistics is, you just need to know that the people who are fond of it are a little like vegans. The fact that someone chooses to use Bayes models never seems to go unannounced. Shhhh, the rest of us don’t care. But still, nerdy maths has its uses. A food fraud study is as good as any.

So a reluctant round of applause goes to ‘A Bayesian Approach to Predict Food Fraud Type and Point of Adulteration’. Researchers from the United Kingdom and Malaysia studied nearly 900 food incidents reported in the Food Adulteration Incidents Registry database.

Reading through the categories of incidents, particularly the ones pertaining to contamination with formaldehyde or sewerage water, you may never wish to eat again. But thankfully, the researchers found most of the food fraud related to mislabelling, fudging the country of origin, expiry date, nutritional information and attributes such as “organic” or “free range”. Not great if you are a high-standards country that might get mimicked by the crooks, but still better than poisoning people.

Beverages were the most likely to be ripped off. It is relatively easy to stretch a drink the extra mile by adding water or sugar. That can be especially tempting for high-value alcohols. Messing with meat made up about 14% of all incident cases.

Counterfeiting inspection documents or substituting beef with poultry, horse or offal products made up the bulk of the beef crime. The system is clearly vulnerable to rogue food processors using dodgy ingredients when no one is looking. Small family-owned retailers who ignore or are ignorant of food labelling rules are another source of frustration.

Honourable mention: The Russian researchers using nerdy maths to work out recipes for beef lungs.


The food scientists are always hard at work looking for the next big thing in meat preservation and packaging. Last year we showcased a pH-sensing packaging made from waste watermelon rinds. This year it is the battle of the food additives. While we can all see the value in a “au natural” beef steak straight off the beast, cattle are not made exclusively of steak cuts.

Each carcase yields a bulk load of manufacturing beef that is ground up for things like burger patties, sausages and pastes for meaty recipes. It is harder to keep minced meat fresh because the grinding process exposes all the insides (iron, enzymes and fats) to the harsh outside environment. These compounds can oxidise and cause the meat to go rancid and opportunistic bacteria can also set up camp there.

There are some distinctively chemically sounding treatments that can be added to meat products to keep meat fresh, but the food science community is always on the lookout for food additives that will resonate with the consumer.

Essential oils are a popular option, going by all the research papers. Keeping the meat fresh, perhaps with rosemary or sage oil or maybe manuka or kanuka oil, or with spare antioxidants left over from blackcurrant processing sounds like a trifecta of thrifty, sustainable and healthy.

Without further ado I present our winner ‘Evaluation of different blackcurrant seed ingredients in meatballs by using conventional quality assessment and untargeted metabolomics’, Estonian University of Life Sciences. Pressing black currants for juice, leaves behind a press-cake of seeds rich in polyphenolic antioxidants. This paper explores ways of upcycling this waste product into a healthy meat additive. These additives preserved the colour and pH of the meatballs during storage while adding dietary fibre and lowering the water lost during cooking.

Honourable mention: Researchers in Queensland, Australia who studied replacing soy protein isolate (a common emulsifier in sausage recipes) with processed Acacia seed in beef sausages. It looked promising.


There is no telling what you will get if you put “social media” and “beef” into Google Scholar. I was presented with a paper called ‘Social Media and Hindu Extremism in India’. Call me naive, but it never occurred to me that there were Hindu terrorists. I do not feel better for knowing that. Likewise for “Meating halfway”: Exploring the attitudes of meat eaters, veg*ns, and occasional meat eaters toward those who eat meat…

Veg*n is never defined in this lengthy paper. I tried to find out how many other research papers used the term and the computer dutifully retrieved marketing papers by Nathalie Veg-Sala whose only crime is writing in French and having a name that looks a bit like Veg*n to computers. I now understand from trawling a vegan website that Veg*n is supposed to be an “inclusive” term for both vegan and vegetarian… and also computers confused by the French alphabet.

While the terrorists and vegans battle it out on the old social media, the video platform TikTok is teaching the younger generation how to cook. A big hand please for our category winner: “TikTok Made Me Do It”: Teenagers’ Perception and Use of Food Content on TikTok, from Indiana University Bloomington. Sure, there is a possibility that it might be a surveillance tool for the Chinese state and my “For You” page is unsubtly hinting that I have ADHD, but TikTok is amazing at serving up helpful videos.

This research suggests that it is having a positive influence by giving users practical hints for everyday healthy eating. ““TikTok has inspired me to consider enhancing my common meals. For instance, adding fruit to my oatmeal, or meat and vegetables to my store-bought ramen,” says one study participant who has been spared years of basic two-minute noodles once considered a rite of passage for youngsters.

Other participants report cultivating an interest in international cuisine, recreating meals shared by their favourite celebrity and learning how to cook a steak to perfection. The participants also had hints for how to save these videos to your phone for future reference and how to tell if content makers actually knew what they were talking about. You know what? I think the kids are going to be all right.

So that’s it for the awards. There was, of course, all sorts of research on methane mitigation, beef growing conditions, packaging, marketing, nutrition and a thousand other things I did not deem quirky enough to mention. Until next year, take care and mind the allergenic ticks!