Support the Guardian

Available for everyone, funded by readers

A future industry leader

A future industry leader

A former Ashburton College student is on her way to becoming a potential leader in the meat industry with interesting research into meat quality and testing.

When you’re buying your beef or lamb in the supermarket, you probably don’t put too much thought into the science behind how it got there.

But for Kelly-Anne Bentley, technology in the meat industry is something she is keen to get stuck into.

The Ashburton local is among nine young New Zealanders from Southland to Northland awarded a scholarship by the Meat Industry Association this year.

A former Ashburton College student, Bentley is working on her master's degree identifying biomarkers in lamb meat and what they indicate about meat quality.

The Lincoln University student hopes to use machine learning to create a model to analyse meat and eventually develop test technology for the meat industry.

One of the markers she looks at is the acidity or pH of the meat. A high pH reading would indicate the meat would make a tough steak.

"It means the muscles aren't producing enough lactic acid to reduce the pH."

Bentley said her test technology would cut out steps for current meat tests, which require a 24-hour wait before testing, and would allow for additional tests.

"The industry needs more tests to ensure customers get the best quality - and it means it's possible to put in a pay scale for quality steak," she said.

Her goal is to understand the quality of meat and reflect that in the market.

With technology, you can see the geographic region the animal is from, the feed and grazing systems they had, and even their gender.

Bentley said the tests could provide scientific proof for marketing labels and could be used to develop additional industry standards.

Her work on lamb meat is mostly centred on the export market.

"That's where we'll make money for the economy," she said.

The 22-year-old said she did not expect to end up in meat science.

"I fell into it and really enjoy it."

She had always wanted to be a chef or pursue a career in the food industry and decided on food science in year 11 at Ashburton College.

Her science teacher told them about golden rice, where scientists had edited the genes of the rice to make it more nutritious - and that piqued her interest. But she'd anticipated working with plant-based foods, not meat.

She completed an undergraduate degree in food science and continued her post-graduate studies in applied science.

"It's exciting to work with a heap of different companies and make industry connections."

Bentley said she had four supervisors for her master's degree and got "to bring together a whole heap of ideas".

In addition to the scholarship, Bentley has two other scholarships for her master's degree - one from Craigmore Sustainables and another from the John W and Carey McClain Trust.

The Meat Industry Association scholarship came with perks that included attending workshops and the annual meat sector conference, she said.

"They help you become leaders in the meat industry."

When she's not working on her research, you will find Bentley in the kitchen, tending the tomatoes, zucchini, and bed of chilies in her vegetable garden, or spending time with her partner who's an avid cart racer.

She also has two part-time jobs at the university, facilitating study sessions and lab tutoring.

Of her years growing up in Ashburton, Bentley said she was into competitive swimming at school. With small business owners for parents she "wasn't able to get away with much" because everyone knew her parents.

After her master's, Bentley is looking at either a doctorate so she can move into research or a job in quality and regulation in the meat industry. However, the pilot study she hoped to do for her doctorate was hard to get funding or scholarships for.

Printing food

Kelly-Anne Bentley was also part of the Lincoln research team working on technology to print food.

Wait, what? Printing food is a thing.

Bentley said there were three-dimensional food printers that worked a lot like more traditional plastic 3D printers, but used rehydrated powdered food as "food ink".

The team tested printing different foods powders, such as peas, milk and meat. Bentley was involved in testing the proteins in the printed meat.

They printed food in the shape of castles and cool shapes like little geckos.

It was a good way to get children to eat nutrients without them knowing it, and also made the proteins and fats in the food more digestible, she said.

The printed food has the consistency of cake and could work well in hospitals and rest homes.

"It make the food easier to eat and more accessible."

Bentley said the technology was "cool" but needed a lot of work.

By Sharon Davis