It all came about because the University of New England needed volunteers for the tests, a lot of them. Normally with market research, the testers go out searching for volunteers offering them individual payment. This can be a bit of a hit and a miss process that can also be expensive and time consuming.
The University came up with quite a clever solution to these problems. It went to local organizations and said if you find and organise 60 volunteers, we will give you $1,000 for your funds. This meant that the University did not have to recruit, pay or manage volunteers. It was done for them.
A thousand dollars is a lot of money for most local organizations, so from Zonta to the History Society they lined up to try to organise recruits. This was more easily said than done. Sixty is a large group, so it took a fair bit of effort to find the necessary volunteers. One friend went to his contact group only to find the first four he asked were all vegetarian or vegan.
I was immediately attracted.
Growing up in Armidale when this was sheep country, lamb and especially mutton were staples. Chicken and beef were reserved for special occasions. Yes, I know that that reveals my age. Who would have thought that chicken would become so cheap?
In recent years, lamb has become so expensive that I rarely eat it. I do like my lamb, so here was a chance to get a free lamb feed while possibly avoiding the need to cook dinner! However, I had no idea what to expect.
Like most Australians, I am used to thinking of meat in terms of cuts. I wondered: how do you do taste tests in these circumstances?
We were broken up into groups of twenty, each sitting at a little work station blocked off from the others to limit discussion.
Each work station was coded and had some cracker biscuits and a glass of watered apple juice along with a questionnaire carrying the work station code. The questionnaire had some demographic questions at the front, then a ranking scale for each sample along a few key dimensions such as tenderness or taste with a final ranking scale from unsatisfactory through to premium. It finished at the end with some pricing questions around how much you would be prepared to pay for each meat rank.
Once the first part of the questionnaire had been filled out, staff came round to individually check each response to make sure that it had been properly filled out. We were then given guidance on the process to be followed in testing.
Each small meat sample would be grilled in the same way and came from stock slaughtered at the same time. The paper plates would be number coded with our workstation number. We would not receive samples in the same order, so there was no point in checking what our neighbour thought.
Before starting and then between each sample, we were to eat some cracker biscuits and drink some apple juice to clear the palate. Our questionnaire would be checked and marked off before the next sample was brought out.
I was surprised at the variation in taste and tenderness between the samples. I only ranked one as unsatisfactory, one as premium, with the others falling between.
As we left, we gathered in little groups to review the experience. We had all enjoyed it, while the combination of some nine samples plus the cracker biscuits and apple juice had indeed been a satisfactory early dinner. They are running similar tests on beef so we have to organise to get another meal!
There is an entire back story to these tests, linked to the pioneering work of Rod Polkinghorne. We all know that the same cut of beef or lamb can taste very different depending on breed, what they have eaten, the time of slaughter. Polkinghorne’s work spelled out some of the variables involved focused on consumer testing. One outcome here was the Meat Standards Australia label that you will see in supermarkets.
There are some interesting issues here that I will tease out later in a blog post. For the moment, I just note that I enjoyed the experience.