Tender camel meat is food for thought

High in protein but with less than half the fat of beef, camel meat is often held up as a healthy alternative - but hardly anyone eats it.

A waiter serves camel burgers at a Dubai restaurant. Scientists are looking at ways of making the healthy meat more tender. AFP
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High in protein but with less than half the fat of beef, camel meat is often held up as a healthy alternative.

But hardly anyone eats it. Globally, it accounts for 0.13 per cent - barely one thousandth - of the meat eaten every year.

As a result of that lack of prominence on the world's dinner tables, there has been little scientific study of the meat's properties.

Now a scientist in Oman is hoping to rectify this. Prof Isam Kadim, of the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, edited a volume published last year entitled Camel Meat and Meat Products.

He believes that it is high time camel meat received the same kind of scientific attention as its more commonly consumed peers.

"The shelf-life of fresh meat has been studied extensively in many countries with many species except camels," he said. A better understanding of how camel meat ages could "play a fundamental role in improving the marketing strategy of [camel] meat".

Ageing is essential for many meats, as it degrades structural proteins, while improving its flavour, texture and even colour. It is routine for many meats - beef, for example, is often hung for up to a month.

That period is crucial: too short, and the meat can be tough and flavourless; too long, and it risks spoiling. To prevent the growth of microbes during that time, the meat is typically spread with antibacterial agents.

There are two main ageing methods - wet and dry. In wet ageing, the meat is vacuum packed and stored at between 1°C and 4°C. In dry ageing, it is not vacuum packed. Ageing occurs more quickly at higher temperatures, especially above 15°C.

While previous studies have concentrated on the potential of ground garlic to extend the life of camel meat - finding that with garlic, it can last up to a month without spoiling if properly refrigerated, thanks to inhibited microbial growth and lipid oxidation - Prof Kadim tested unadulterated meat, storing samples for up to a week before analysing them.

He found that ageing it at 2°C to 3°C for seven days improved its quality. The meat became more tender as its proteins broke down, but because it was kept cool the bacteria and other microbes that can make meat deteriorate grew only very slow.

And a week was not enough time for the fats in the meat to go off and start creating the bad smells, tastes and potentially toxic organic compounds associated with oxidation during ageing.

"Ageing is one of the postmortem treatments that increases camel meat tenderness that might be adopted in the camel industry," he said.

Prof Kadim is not the only one considering how ageing might make for tastier camel meat. Another study was published recently in the Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture (EFJA), the work of six scientists in Sudan and France.

They took meat samples from seven female camels, storing them at between 1°and 3°C for one, three, five or seven days.

In each sample, they tested factors such as acidity, colour, and protein and fat content.

They found that levels of a particular organic compound, malondialdehyde (MDA), increased substantially as the meat aged. By the time the meat was a week old, it contained three times as much MDA as it had six days before.

This is important because higher levels of MDA indicate that fats in the meat are becoming oxidised, which causes meat to go off. That suggested that fattier camel meat was at risk of deteriorating in quality after a week in cold storage.

Combined with Prof Kadim's finding that the meat becomes more tender over the first week, it seems that a week might be the "sweet spot", when the meat is at its most tender before it starts to deteriorate due to oxidation.

The French and Sudanese study found that camel meat contains much vitamin E, which removes free radicals and so slows the oxidation process. It contains three times as much vitamin E as some types of beef, for example. Prof Kadim is looking at trying to improve the meat's shelf life by injecting animals with vitamins C and E, both of which have antioxidant properties.

A similar technique is already used with cattle and poultry, the latter often being given vitamin E supplements in their feed in the month before slaughter to improve the meat's shelf life.

"No one has touched this important issue so far in camel because there is not enough camel meat on the market and our knowledge is still narrow," said Prof Kadim. Still, camel meat rarely has to be thrown away because of deterioration - partly because there is so relatively little of it.

"There is no wastage of camel meat because the available camel meat in markets doesn't fulfil requirements," said Prof Kadim.

"For example, the price of camel meat in Oman is higher than for other meats because there is huge demand for it."

And demand appears to be growing in parts of the world outside the food's traditional stronghold of the Middle East and North Africa.

In Australia, where there are more than a million feral camels, there has been talk of opening an abattoir for the animals, following long-running efforts to control their numbers.

While that project is on hold for financial reasons, camel culling continues, and the meat produced has been served up as far away as Toronto, Canada, where camel burgers have found favour thanks to their low fat content.

Like Prof Kadim, Dr Bernard Faye, a Saudi Arabian-based consultant who took part in the EJFA study, believes the time is ripe for camel meat to be put under the scientific spotlight.

"The main reason [for the lack of research] is because camel meat consumption is low due to the marginal camel population in the world, and also because camels are mainly present in developing countries where meat research is not well advanced compared to western countries," he said.