A team of 50 Southlanders have what some carnivores might see as the perfect job.
They're the taste testing panel for meat company Alliance, charged with ensuring the company's export lamb, beef and venison is gourmet quality.
There's not a lot of conversation around the table. The diners are too busy eating prime cuts of lamb, cooked to perfection by an award-winning chef. It's their job, making in-depth evaluations of meat.
“You smell it for the aroma, then you bite into it for the texture and succulence, then last of all the flavour,” says veteran meat taste tester Sonja Lindsay.
“It's hard to believe that meat all looks the same, but the variances that there are in it, especially in the flavour and the tenderness,” says meat taste tester Ross Thomson.
The Alliance Group employs 50 trained panellists at its product development centre near Invercargill.
“They go through a range of tests to ensure that they've got a palate that can identify the sort of things we're looking for, whether it be flavour differences or texture or succulence differences,” says development services manager Gary Maclennan.
And Southland chef Graham Hawkes admits the taste sessions do have a unique pressure.
“This tasting is no seasoning, it's a tasteless oil, the meat is cooked medium-rare each time, so it's a real tasting of the quality of the meat itself,” says Mr Hawkes.
Results will help drive future improvements in genetics and forage crop systems, information which is fed back to farmers. Meat companies are already breaking down carcasses into smaller cuts in response to consumer demand for greater convenience.
And with 95 percent of the company's output exported overseas, extending the shelf life of the meat is also important.
International shipping times are getting longer as vessels slow down to save on fuel. That means finding new ways to ensure the chilled meat still arrives at its destination in the best quality.
“So we're looking at a lot of new processing techniques, packaging techniques and temperature profiles to try to give more life to the product and the consumer,” says Alliance marketing manager Murray Brown.
Those innovations will help New Zealand meat retain its premium reputation.