Recently in Denver, representatives of the Beef Checkoff and the Beef Innovations Group (BIG) at NCBA outlined progress and challenges in product development to a group of trade media. Bridget Wasser, executive director of meat science and technology with NCBA, explained the product-development process and demonstrated meat-cutting methods for established and emerging beef cuts.

Take, for example, the Flat Iron Steak, which comes from the “shoulder clod” portion of the chuck and is the second-most tender muscle on the beef carcass. Traditionally, the muscle was included in chuck roasts or ground beef. But muscle-profiling research, sponsored by the Beef Checkoff and conducted at the University of Florida and University of Nebraska in the late 1990s, identified the Flat Iron as an excellent steak-quality cut that could offer consumers a delicious eating experience while adding value to the chuck portion of the carcass.

However, extra labor is required to cut Flat Iron Steaks from the shoulder clod. Beginning around 2002, the Beef Checkoff engaged in a “push-pull” marketing strategy, educating chefs and retailers about the quality of the cut while also convincing packers and processers they could add value by making the effort to cut and package it. It took time — a “10-year overnight success story” Wasser calls it. But the Flat Iron caught on, and in 2013 the industry sold about 71 million pounds of Flat Iron Steaks, topping the total for porterhouse and T-bone steaks of 65 million pounds.  Flat Iron Steaks today retail around $8 per pound, well above most cuts from the chuck.

That same muscle-profiling research identified the “Petite Tender,” which also comes from the shoulder clod. This muscle, in contrast, is easy to remove, and restaurants buy all they can and wish there were more than two Petite Tenders on each carcass.

Today, the BIG continues to research and develop markets for innovative cuts, both from the chuck and round and from middle meats such as the sirloin and ribeye.

From the chuck, these include the Ranch Steak, or shoulder center steak, which is similar to top sirloin in tenderness; America’s Beef Roast; Boneless Country-Style Beef Ribs; Sierra Cut; and the Denver Cut.

In the case of middle meats such as the top sirloin and ribeye, the development of new cuts focuses largely on portion control. As cattle have grown larger, cuts become bigger and have to be cut thinner to meet restaurant and consumer preferences. So, researchers and marketers are exploring options for alternative cutting methods to provide excellent eating experiences for consumers and value for retailers and restaurateurs.

These include removing the sirloin cap, or coulotte, from the top sirloin for use as a grilling roast or steaks, and creating Top Sirloin Fillets, which are smaller and thicker than typical sirloin steaks, from the remaining muscle. In a similar process, meat cutters can remove the cap from the ribeye, creating a new, ultra-tender (and expensive) set of steaks. The remaining “eye” portion, or Longissimus dorsi muscle, becomes Ribeye Fillets, lean, tender and flavorful steaks that can be cut thicker at the same portion weight as a traditional ribeye steak.

As with the Flat Iron Steak, change will take time. Packers, processors, retailers and foodservice operators will need to test these cuts and determine how they perform economically.

Already, these innovations in beef cutting have generated returns for beef producers and the entire production chain. Back in 2011, CattleFax estimated the new shoulder clod cuts, including the Flat Iron, Petite Tender and Ranch Steak, added $50 to $70 to the value of each finished animal. They also projected the new chuck roll cuts, such as the Boneless Country-Style Chuck Ribs, Denver Cut and Sierra Cut, once selling nationally, would add another $40 to $50 per head in value.

While new cuts and cutting methods add value, consumers also want convenience in preparing beef meals, so the BIG has invested in developing, testing, refining and introducing new beef products, packages and preparation methods to provide consumers with easy, delicious and nutritious beef “meal solutions.”

During the event in Denver, Steven Wald and Shenoa French, both members of NCBA’s department of science and product solutions, explained and demonstrated a variety of new, ultra-convenient beef products at various stages of development or test marketing. These include:

·         Microwavable roasts: Special FDA-approved packaging, coupled with specific seasoning and fat trim, allow microwave preparation of tri-tip and sirloin cap roasts with less than 20 minutes of cooking time.

·         Microwavable ground beef: The packaging for this product is similar to that of the microwavable roasts. The product safely cooks from frozen or fresh in six to nine minutes, and the ground beef then can be crumbled and added to any recipes that incorporate ground beef.

·         Self-contained skillet meals: These “weekday steaks and roasts” are packaged with seasonings and easy preparation instructions, to provide a beef entrée in less than 20 minutes.

·         Delicatessen beef: The checkoff and BIG are working with supermarket chains to develop beef deli options, such as smoked, sliced beef brisket, for in-store preparation.

·         Slow-cooker pot roasts: To make slow cooking even simpler, the culinary experts at BIG have developed a packaged, pre-seasoned slow-cooker chuck roast that cooks in its own bag. In early consumer testing, 80 percent of panel participants said they would cook this product once per month or more, and 100 percent said the packaging and preparation method would cause them to buy chuck roast more often.

Overall, these efforts toward innovation help the beef industry adapt to an evolving consumer marketplace. New, value-priced products and convenient meals will help ensure that beef will remain “what’s for dinner.”

See this article with photos of several of the new products described in the December digital edition of Drovers/CattleNetwork magazine.