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Meat is animal flesh that is eaten as food. Humans are omnivorous, and have hunted and killed animals for meat since prehistoric times. The advent of civilization allowed the domestication of animals such as chickens, sheep, pigs and cattle, and eventually their use in meat production on an industrial scale.
Meat is mainly composed of water, protein, and fat, and is usually eaten together with other food. It is edible raw, but is normally eaten after it has been cooked and seasoned or processed in a variety of ways. Unprocessed meat will spoil or rot within hours or days as a result of infection with and decomposition by bacteria and fungi.
Meat consumption varies worldwide, depending on cultural or religious preferences, as well as economic conditions. Vegetarians choose not to eat meat because of ethical, economic, environmental, religious or health concerns that are associated with meat production and consumption.
Most often, meat refers to skeletal muscle and associated fat and other tissues, but it may also describe other edible tissues such as offal. Meat is sometimes also used in a more restrictive sense – the flesh of mammalian species (pigs, cattle, lambs, etc.) raised and prepared for human consumption, to the exclusion of fish, other seafood, poultry or other animals.
The word meat comes from the Old English word mete, which referred to food in general. The term is related to mad in Danish, mat in Swedish and Norwegian, and matur in Icelandic and Faroese, which also mean 'food'. The word mete also exists in Old Frisian (and to a lesser extent, modern West Frisian) to denote important food, differentiating it from swiets (sweets) and dierfied (animal feed).
Paleontological evidence suggests that meat constituted a substantial proportion of the diet of even the earliest humans. Early hunter-gatherers depended on the organized hunting of large animals such as bison and deer.
The domestication of animals, of which we have evidence dating back to the end of the last glacial period (c. 10,000 BC), allowed the systematic production of meat and the breeding of animals with a view to improving meat production. The animals which are now the principal sources of meat were domesticated in conjunction with the development of early civilizations:
Sheep, originating from western Asia, were domesticated with the help of dogs prior to the establishment of settled agriculture, likely as early as the 8th millennium BC. Several breeds of sheep were established in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt by 3500–3000 BC. Presently, more than 200 sheep breeds exist.
Cattle were domesticated in Mesopotamia after settled agriculture was established about 5000 BC, and several breeds were established by 2500 BC. Modern domesticated cattle fall into the groups Bos taurus (European cattle) and Bos indicus (zebu), both descended from the now-extinct aurochs. The breeding of beef cattle, cattle optimized for meat production as opposed to animals best suited for draught or dairy purposes, began in the middle of the 18th century.
Domestic pigs, which are descended from wild boars, are known to have existed about 2500 BC in modern-day Hungary and in Troy; earlier pottery from Jericho and Egypt depicts wild pigs. Pork sausages and hams were of great commercial importance in Greco-Roman times. Pigs continue to be bred intensively as they are being optimized to produce meat best suited for specific meat products.
Other animals are or have been raised or hunted for their flesh. The type of meat consumed varies much between different cultures, changes over time, depending on factors such as tradition and the availability of the animals. The amount and kind of meat consumed also varies by income, both between countries and within a given country.
Modern agriculture employs a number of techniques, such as progeny testing, to make animals evolve rapidly to acquire the qualities desired by meat producers. For instance, in the wake of well-publicised health concerns associated with saturated fats in the 1980s, the fat content of United Kingdom beef, pork and lamb fell from 20–26 percent to 4–8 percent within a few decades, due to both selective breeding for leanness and changed methods of butchery. Methods of genetic engineering aimed at improving the meat production qualities of animals are now also becoming available.
Even though it is a very old industry, meat production continues to be shaped strongly by the evolving demands of customers. The trend towards selling meat in pre-packaged cuts has increased the demand for larger breeds of cattle, which are better suited to producing such cuts. Even more animals not previously exploited for their meat are now being farmed, especially the more agile and mobile species, whose muscles tend to be developed better than those of cattle, sheep or pigs. Examples are the various antelope species, the zebra, water buffalo and camel, as well as non-mammals, such as the crocodile, emu and ostrich. Another important trend in contemporary meat production is organic farming which, while providing no organoleptic benefit to meat so produced, meets an increasing demand for organic meat.
GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF MEAT ANIMALS
Agricultural science has identified several factors bearing on the growth and development of meat in animals.
Genetic engineering techniques can shorten breeding programmes significantly because they allow for the identification and isolation of genes coding for desired traits, and for the reincorporation of these genes into the animal genome. To enable such manipulation, research is ongoing (as of 2006) to map the entire genome of sheep, cattle and pigs. Some research has already seen commercial application. For instance, a recombinant bacterium has been developed which improves the digestion of grass in the rumen of cattle, and some specific features of muscle fibres have been genetically altered.
Experimental reproductive cloning of commercially important meat animals such as sheep, pig or cattle has been successful. The multiple asexual reproduction of animals bearing desirable traits can thus be anticipated, although this is not yet practical on a commercial scale.
The composition of the diet, especially the amount of protein provided, is also an important factor regulating animal growth. Ruminants, which may digest cellulose, are better adapted to poor-quality diets, but their ruminal microorganisms degrade high-quality protein if supplied in excess. Because producing high-quality protein animal feed is expensive (see also Environmental impact below), several techniques are employed or experimented with to ensure maximum utilization of protein. These include the treatment of feed with formalin to protect amino acids during their passage through the rumen, the recycling of manure by feeding it back to cattle mixed with feed concentrates, or the partial conversion of petroleum hydrocarbons to protein through microbial action.
In plant feed, environmental factors influence the availability of crucial nutrients or micronutrients, a lack or excess of which can cause a great many ailments. In Australia, for instance, where the soil contains limited phosphate, cattle are being fed additional phosphate to increase the efficiency of beef production. Also in Australia, cattle and sheep in certain areas were often found losing their appetite and dying in the midst of rich pasture; this was at length found to be a result of cobalt deficiency in the soil. Plant toxins are also a risk to grazing animals; for instance, sodium fluoracetate, found in some African and Australian plants, kills by disrupting the cellular metabolism. Certain man-made pollutants such as methylmercury and some pesticide residues present a particular hazard due to their tendency to bioaccumulate in meat, potentially poisoning consumers.
Growth hormones, particularly anabolic agents such as steroids, are used in some countries to accelerate muscle growth in animals. This practice has given rise to the beef hormone controversy, an international trade dispute. It may also decrease the tenderness of meat, although research on this is inconclusive, and have other effects on the composition of the muscle flesh. Where castration is used to improve control over male animals, its side effects are also counteracted by the administration of hormones.
Sedatives may be administered to animals to counteract stress factors and increase weight gain. The feeding of antibiotics to certain animals has been shown to improve growth rates also. This practice is particularly prevalent in the USA, but has been banned in the EU, partly because it causes antibiotic resistance in pathogenic microorganisms.
Numerous aspects of the biochemical composition of meat vary in complex ways depending on the species, breed, sex, age, plane of nutrition, training and exercise of the animal, as well as on the anatomical location of the musculature involved. Even between animals of the same litter and sex there are considerable differences in such parameters as the percentage of intramuscular fat.
Muscle proteins are either soluble in water (sarcoplasmic proteins, about 11.5 percent of total muscle mass) or in concentrated salt solutions (myofibrillar proteins, about 5.5 percent of mass). There are several hundred sarcoplasmic proteins. Most of them – the glycolytic enzymes – are involved in the glycolytic pathway, i.e., the conversion of stored energy into muscle power. The two most abundant myofibrillar proteins, myosin and actin, are responsible for the muscle's overall structure. The remaining protein mass consists of connective tissue (collagen and elastin) as well as organelle tissue.
Fat in meat can be either adipose tissue, used by the animal to store energy and consisting of "true fats" (esters of glycerol with fatty acids), or intramuscular fat, which contains considerable quantities of phospholipids and of unsaponifiable constituents such as cholesterol.
Red and white meat
Meat can be broadly classified as "red" or "white" depending on the concentration of myoglobin in muscle fibre. When myoglobin is exposed to oxygen, reddish oxymyoglobin develops, making myoglobin-rich meat appear red. The redness of meat depends on species, animal age, and fibre type: Red meat contains more narrow muscle fibres that tend to operate over long periods without rest, while white meat contains more broad fibres that tend to work in short fast bursts.
Generally, the meat of adult mammals such as cows, sheep, goats, and horses is considered red, while chicken and turkey breast meat is considered white.
All muscle tissue is very high in protein, containing all of the essential amino acids, and in most cases is a good source of zinc, vitamin B12, selenium, phosphorus, niacin, vitamin B6, choline, riboflavin and iron. Several forms of meat are also high in vitamin K. Muscle tissue is very low in carbohydrates and does not contain dietary fibre. While taste quality may vary between meats, the proteins, vitamins, and minerals available from meats are generally consistent.
The fat content of meat can vary widely depending on the species and breed of animal, the way in which the animal was raised, including what it was fed, the anatomical part of the body, and the methods of butchering and cooking. Wild animals such as deer are typically leaner than farm animals, leading those concerned about fat content to choose game such as venison. Decades of breeding meat animals for fatness is being reversed by consumer demand for meat with less fat. The fatty deposits that exist with the muscle fibres in meats soften meat when it is cooked and improve the flavour through chemical changes initiated through heat that allow the protein and fat molecules to interact. The fat, when cooked with meat, also makes the meat seem juicier. However, the nutritional contribution of the fat is mainly calories as opposed to protein. As fat content rises, the meat's contribution to nutrition declines. In addition, there is cholesterol associated with fat surrounding the meat. The cholesterol is a lipid associated with the kind of saturated fat found in meat. The increase in meat consumption after 1960 is associated with, though not definitively the cause of, significant imbalances of fat and cholesterol in the human diet.
The table in this section compares the nutritional content of several types of meat. While each kind of meat has about the same content of protein and carbohydrates, there is a very wide range of fat content.
Meat is produced by killing an animal and cutting flesh out of it. These procedures are called slaughter and butchery, respectively. There is ongoing research into producing meat in vitro, that is, outside of animals.
Attesting to the long history of meat consumption in human civilizations, ritual slaughter has become part of the practice of several religions. These rituals, as well as other pre-industrial meat production methods such as these used by indigenous peoples, are not detailed here. This section will instead provide an overview of contemporary industrialized meat production in dedicated slaughterhouses from cattle, sheep and pigs.
Draining as much blood as possible from the carcase is necessary because blood causes the meat to have an unappealing appearance and is a breeding ground for microorganisms. The exsanguination is accomplished by severing the carotid artery and the jugular vein in cattle and sheep, and the anterior vena cava in pigs.
Dressing and cutting
Under hygienic conditions and without other treatment, meat can be stored at above its freezing point (–1.5 °C) for about six weeks without spoilage, during which time it undergoes an aging process that increases its tenderness and flavour.
During the first day after death, glycolysis continues until the accumulation of lactic acid causes the pH to reach about 5.5. The remaining glycogen, about 18 g per kg, is believed to increase the water-holding capacity and tenderness of the flesh when cooked. Rigor mortis sets in a few hours after death as ATP is used up, causing actin and myosin to combine into rigid actomyosin and lowering the meat's water-holding capacity, causing it to lose water ("weep"). In muscles that enter rigor in a contracted position, actin and myosin filaments overlap and cross-bond, resulting in meat that is tough on cooking - hence again the need to prevent pre-slaughter stress in the animal.
Over time, the muscle proteins denature in varying degree, with the exception of the collagen and elastin of connective tissue, and rigor mortis resolves. Because of these changes, the meat is tender and pliable when cooked just after death or after the resolution of rigor, but tough when cooked during rigor. As the muscle pigment myoglobin denatures, its iron oxidates, which may cause a brown discoloration near the surface of the meat. Ongoing proteolysis also contributes to conditioning. Hypoxanthine, a breakdown product of ATP, contributes to the meat's flavour and odour, as do other products of the decomposition of muscle fat and protein.
Acidifiers, most often lactic or citric acid, can impart a tangy or tart flavour note, extend shelf-life, tenderize fresh meat or help with protein denaturation and moisture release in dried meat. They substitute for the process of natural fermentation that acidifies some meat products such as hard salami or prosciutto.
SPOILAGE AND PRESERVATION
The spoilage of meat occurs, if untreated, in a matter of hours or days and results in the meat becoming unappetizing, poisonous or infectious. Spoilage is caused by the practically unavoidable infection and subsequent decomposition of meat by bacteria and fungi, which are borne by the animal itself, by the people handling the meat, and by their implements. Meat can be kept edible for a much longer time – though not indefinitely – if proper hygiene is observed during production and processing, and if appropriate food safety, food preservation and food storage procedures are applied. Without the application of preservatives and stabilizers, the fats in meat may also begin to rapidly decompose after cooking or processing, leading to an objectionable taste known as warmed over flavour.
METHODS OF PREPARATION
Fresh meat can be cooked for immediate consumption, or be processed, that is, treated for longer-term preservation and later consumption, possibly after further preparation. Fresh meat cuts or processed cuts may produce iridescence, commonly thought to be due to spoilage but actually caused structural coloration and diffraction of the light. A common additive to processed meats, both for preservation and because it prevents discolouring, is sodium nitrite, which, however, is also a source of health concerns, because it may form carcinogenic nitrosamines when heated.
Meat is prepared in many ways, as steaks, in stews, fondue, or as dried meat like beef jerky. It may be ground then formed into patties (as hamburgers or croquettes), loaves, or sausages, or used in loose form (as in "sloppy joe" or Bolognese sauce).
Some meat is cured by smoking, which is the process of flavouring, cooking, or preserving food by exposing it to the smoke from burning or smouldering plant materials, most often wood. In Europe, alder is the traditional smoking wood, but oak is more often used now, and beech to a lesser extent. In North America, hickory, mesquite, oak, pecan, alder, maple, and fruit-tree woods are commonly used for smoking. Meat can also be cured by pickling, preserving in salt or brine (see salted meat and other curing methods). Other kinds of meat are marinated and barbecued, or simply boiled, roasted, or fried.
Meat is generally eaten cooked, but many recipes call for raw beef, veal or fish (tartare). Steak tartare is a meat dish made from finely chopped or minced raw beef or horse meat. Meat is often spiced or seasoned, particularly with meat products such as sausages. Meat dishes are usually described by their source (animal and part of body) and method of preparation (e.g., a beef rib).
Meat is a typical base for making sandwiches. Popular varieties of sandwich meat include ham, pork, salami and other sausages, and beef, such as steak, roast beef, corned beef, pepperoni, and pastrami. Meat can also be moulded or pressed (common for products that include offal, such as haggis and scrapple) and canned.
Meat is part of the human diet in most cultures, where it often has symbolic meaning and important social functions. Many people, however, choose not to eat meat (this is referred to as vegetarianism) or any food made from animals (veganism). The reasons for not eating all or some meat may include ethical objections to killing animals for food, health concerns, environmental concerns or religious dietary laws.
Ethics of eating meat
Some people eat only the flesh of animals which they believe have not been mistreated, and abstain from the meat of animals reared in factory farms or from particular products such as foie gras and veal. Some people also abstain from milk and its derivatives because the production of veal is a byproduct of the dairy industry. The ethical issues with factory farming relate to the high concentration of animals, animal waste, and the potential for dead animals in a small space. Critics argue that some techniques used in intensive agriculture can be cruel to animals. Foie gras is a food product made of the liver of ducks or geese that has been specially fattened by force feeding them corn. Veal is criticised because the veal calves may be highly restricted in movement; have unsuitable flooring; spend their entire lives indoors; experience prolonged sensory, social, and exploratory deprivation; and are more susceptible to high amounts of stress and disease.
A 1999 metastudy combined data from five studies from western countries. The metastudy reported mortality ratios, where lower numbers indicated fewer deaths, for fish eaters to be 0.82, vegetarians to be 0.84, occasional meat eaters to be 0.84. Regular meat eaters and vegans shared the highest mortality ratio of 1.00.
In response to changing prices as well as health concerns about saturated fat and cholesterol, consumers have altered their consumption of various meats. A USDA report points out that consumption of beef in the United States between 1970–1974 and 1990–1994 dropped by 21%, while consumption of chicken increased by 90%. During the same period of time, the price of chicken dropped by 14% relative to the price of beef. In 1995 and 1996, beef consumption increased due to higher supplies and lower prices.
However, many research papers do not support significant links between meat consumption and various cancers. Key et al. found that "There were no significant differences between vegetarians and nonvegetarians in mortality from cerebrovascular disease, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer or all other causes combined." Truswell reviewed numerous studies, concluding that the relationship of colorectal cancer with meat consumption appeared weaker than the "probable" status it had been given by the World Cancer Research Foundation in 1997. A study by Chao et al. (2005) found an apparent association of colorectal cancer with red meat consumption after adjustment for age and energy intake. However, after further adjustment for body mass index, cigarette smoking and other covariates, no association with red meat consumption was found. Alex' ander conducted a meta-analysis which found no association of colorectal cancer with consumption of animal fat or protein. Based on European data (EPIC-Oxford study), Key et al. found that incidence of colorectal cancer was somewhat lower among meat eaters than among vegetarians. However, they concluded that 'the study is not large enough to exclude small or moderate differences for specific causes of death, and more research on this topic is required'. A study within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) found that association between oesophageal cancer risk and total and processed meat intake was not statistically significant.
Another recent study of EPIC found a significant correlation between eating ' processed meat and cardiovascular diseases...also to cancer. In this population, reduction of processed meat consumption to less than 20 g/day would prevent more than 3% of all deaths.' The dissimilar findings indicate that further research is needed in considering claims of dietary links to cancer occurrence.
Several studies published since 1990 indicate that cooking muscle meat creates heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are thought to increase cancer risk in humans. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute published results of a study which found that human subjects who ate beef rare or medium-rare had less than one third the risk of stomach cancer than those who ate beef medium-well or well-done. While eating muscle meat raw may be the only way to avoid HCAs fully, the National Cancer Institute states that cooking meat below 212 °F (100 °C) creates "negligible amounts" of HCAs. Also, microwaving meat before cooking may reduce HCAs by 90%.
Nitrosamines, present in processed and cooked foods, have been noted as being carcinogenic, being linked to colon cancer. Also, toxic compounds called PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, present in processed, smoked and cooked foods, are known to be carcinogenic.
The livestock sector may be the largest source of water pollution (due to animal wastes, fertilizers, pesticides), and it contributes to emergence of antibiotic resistance. It accounts for over 8% of global human water use. It is by far the biggest cause of land use, as it accounts for 30% of the global land surface. It is probably the leading player in biodiversity loss, as it causes deforestation, land degradation, pollution, overfishing, and invasions by alien species. It is responsible for 14.5% of the world's anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. However, it would be inappropriate to assign all these effects to meat production, because according to production data compiled by the FAO, 74 percent of global livestock product tonnage in 2011 was accounted for by non-meat products.
The occurrence, nature and significance of environmental effects varies among livestock production systems. Grazing of livestock can be beneficial for some wildlife species, but not for others. Targeted grazing of livestock is used as a food-producing alternative to herbicide use in some vegetation management. Meat-producing livestock can provide environmental benefits through waste reduction, e.g. conversion of human-inedible residues of food crops. Manure from meat-producing livestock is used as fertilizer; it may be composted before application to food crops. Substitution of animal manures for synthetic fertilizers in crop production can be environmentally significant, as between 43 and 88 MJ of fossil fuel energy are used per kg of nitrogen in manufacture of synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers.
In 2013, reports emerged across Europe that products labelled as containing beef actually contained horse meat. In February 2013 a study was published showing that about one-third of raw fish are misidentified across the United States.
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