Tenderness, juiciness and flavor — these are the qualities that determine whether someone eating a piece of beef will be happy or unhappy. Of those, tenderness is generally considered the most important. Even though the 2005 National Beef Tenderness Survey showed things have gotten better on the tenderness front since the previous study in 1999, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
One obstacle has been, and remains, the lack of a reliable method of measuring tenderness. Marbling is associated with all three of the above-mentioned qualities, but marbling, as measured by USDA quality grade, is not an accurate predictor of tenderness.
So consumers are always uncertain whether the meat they’re buying will be tender. They go by color, fat content, purge and price, according to Floyd McKeith at the University of Illinois. These are the factors consumers use to buy meat, but a good eating experience — tenderness, juiciness and flavor — is what makes them want to buy it again.
Some research has suggested that if there is labeling information about tenderness, it has value: Consumers are willing to pay for it. In an experiment at Kansas State University, consumers had to decide which steak they preferred. Sixty-nine percent of participants preferred the guaranteed-tender steak based on eating experience alone. When consumers learned that one steak was “guaranteed tender” and the other steak was “probably tough,” even more of them — 84 percent — preferred the “guaranteed tender” steak. The chart, from a presentation by Colorado State University’s Keith Belk, shows consumers’ willingness to pay for beef they know will be tender.
Tenderness is an elusive goal, not only because it’s difficult to measure but because so many variables affect it. Research at the ARS Meat Animal Research Center found that genetics explain about 50 percent of meat tenderness. External factors — stress, diet, handling — contribute to the rest of the equation.
There are also post-harvest factors: Aging is a key influence on tenderness. Meat is tender immediately following harvest. Then rigor mortis sets in, lasting about 12 hours, making muscles stiffen and meat toughen. After that, tenderization begins.
But it takes time. Before14 days of aging, meat is likely to still be tough; even after 14 days, some will still be tough. Twenty-one days of aging will make most beef tender. But that rarely happens; even 14 days of aging isn’t often seen. Cooler space is expensive, so most meat processors have resisted long periods of aging. In fact, most beef at the grocery store is aged only five to seven days — very rarely more than 10 days.
Even though market incentives for individual producers are few — though the “guaranteed tender” label on branded products is gaining some strength — the industry has a real stake in improving tenderness at every level of the beef-production chain. Beef demand, after all, is driven by quality eating experiences, and tenderness is its most important ingredient.