Move over, pot roast. There are new kids in town.
Move over, pot roast. There are new kids in town.

Flip through Betty Crocker’s 1950-edition cookbook and you’ll find ground beef and slow-cooker comfort food galore. Pot pie, cheeseburger bake, meatballs, casserole after casserole, and loaded baked potatoes topped with enough butter and love to take your senses back to grandma’s kitchen table — simple times when all you needed was a little fat, salt and a side of potatoes to reach culinary perfection.

Now, fast forward to the late 1990s when the world was preparing for the new millennium.

In the midst of a technology boom, the electronic world was knee-deep in troubleshooting what it feared as the Y2K bug, Britain was dealing with outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Jack and Rose broke the hearts of millions in the premier of Titanic and former President of the United States Bill Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Meanwhile, the beef industry prepared for its own turn of the century. The consumer market was hungry for higher-quality varieties in beef cuts that didn’t break the bank, and cattle producers needed to find a way to add value to their end product. Members of the Beef Board, funded by the Beef Checkoff, put their heads together to come up with a solution — the end result being a muscle-profiling study that changed beef as they knew it.

“The Beef Checkoff funded the most extensive study on muscle profiling of its time at the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” says executive director of meat science and technology for the Beef Checkoff Program Bridget Wasser. “The study looked at nearly all of the different muscles in the beef chuck and round, evaluating them for their eating quality.”

Before, little was known about the muscles toward the outside of the beef carcass. While beef-cut kings like the Ribeye and Fillet Mignon ruled the spendier side of the meat counter, lesser-understood muscles were often ground up without a second thought.

Diamonds in the rough

What they found were several prospective cuts from the 39 tested individual muscles within the chuck and round. During the extensive study, researchers evaluated attributes like tenderness, sensory satisfaction and flavor, along with physical characteristics which included fat and moisture content of the different muscles to determine eating quality and processing use.

“The muscle-profiling research identified some diamonds in the rough, or very tender muscles especially in the beef chuck,” Wasser explains. “The study found if things were cut a little differently, the industry can take advantage of that tenderness and offer up a high-quality eating experience that could be grilled instead of having to be put in a crock pot or ground up for ground beef.”

Action was taken to further develop cutting techniques to turn multi-muscle cuts into more useable and convenient product for the consumer that rose above ground beef in price and value but without them digging deep into their pockets for the premium steak market. By 2008, 13 value-added cuts hit the market, with the Petite Tender and Flat Iron from the chuck being fan favorites.  

Spreading the good word

“What happened as an aftermath of the study was the Beef Checkoff taking the information and translating it into educational tools for the industry,” Wasser says.

Part of the market plan of implementing the new research findings included cooking trials and recipe development to find how each cut should best be prepared. This also served in driving demand through inspiration to the general consumer on up to professional chefs.

“There might be a tender muscle next to another one that isn’t so tender in something like a chuck roast, so that really influenced how consumers traditionally had to prepare cuts from the chuck and the round,” Wasser says. “This meant always having to prepare the cuts to the lowest common denominators.”

Through online training modules for fabrication methods and outreach through state beef councils, the new technology gradually made its way into production — a process that took the now-popular Flat Iron about 10 years to make its break.

“The market conditions have to be right for it. The new way of cutting the carcass takes a lot more knife work and labor on the fabrication end,” she explains. “So it has to make sense financially for processors to invest in new cutting method technology.”

Health, convenience and safety

Present day, the beef industry is in the heat of the “now” generation. Through the wealth of information available online almost instantaneously though smartphones and tablets, consumers are hungrier than ever to be more in tune with the beef they are putting into their bodies, says producer leader of the Beef Checkoff’s joint domestic consumer preference committee Laurie Munns.

“A big focus is on health,” Munns says. “This generation is very concerned about the safety of their beef, where it comes from and how it’s going to impact their life.”

Just 10 years ago, only nine beef cuts were available to consumers that met USDA’s specification of a lean cut. Through continued research branching off of the original muscle-profiling study, there are now almost 40 lean cuts on the market.

“Thirty years ago, we fought with dieticians in the medical field about how healthy beef was for us,” Munns says (see “Beef, it does a body good,” on page 6). “Then we got beef in the ‘beef in an optimal lean diet’ study and have been able to prove that lean beef not only contributes to a heart-healthy diet, but it can reduce cholesterol levels.”

Next in line comes convenience. Munns explains in order to keep up with consumer demand for on-the-go product availabilities, the industry had to find its “chicken nugget” of beef products.

“One of the top priorities is the convenience of meal preparation — to give them a product they can do quick and easy by cooking straight from the freezer to the dinner plate,” Munns says.

Leading into the future

Compared to 20 years ago, the amount of beef meeting USDA standards of Prime and Choice has increased by 60 percent. Advancements in genetic technology are gradually making it easier for seedstock producers to make production decisions based on tenderness and quality of the finished meat product, and programs such as the Beef Quality Assurance training are continually educating producers on raising the highest-quality product they can through the latest in cattle management. This has researchers and producers optimistic for a bright future in beef demand.

“Now is a very exciting time for the beef industry,” Munns says. “Continual research to bring consumers the best product available on the market place is being implemented, quality is better than it ever has been before and it’s going to continue to get better — this truly is not your grandma’s beef.”

See the full article and more in the digital edition of the September issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.