The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) rolled out its final report on a study designed to boost the value of beef from the chuck and round. The report on muscle profiling was presented at a gathering of major beef industry end-users and suppliers from across the United States. NCBA anticipates that the research findings will benefit all segments of the beef industry and ultimately provide consumers with new choices at the meat counter and in restaurants.

The muscle profiling study, funded by the national beef checkoff program, describes and catalogues the characteristics of 39 muscles in the chuck and round, such as flavor ad tenderness. Among the traits measured where fat content, color, pH, water-holding capacity, connective-tissue content, bind capacity and tenderness. The work was conducted through a collaborative effort by the University of Florida, the University of Nebraska and NCBA's Center for Research and Technical Services.

"This new research identifies key characteristics which we need to know if we're going to find new, convenient ways to prepare these cuts," says Bucky Gwartney, director of science and technology for NCBA

At a rollout of the research results Oct. 23, in Lincoln, Neb., retailers and suppliers reviewed the research findings and explored how to adapt those findings to fit their needs. Participants received a detailed manual, which identifies each muscle within the chuck or round, summarizes its characteristics and recommends compatible preparation methods. The participants also visited the University of Nebraska meat science facilities to see first-hand how some muscles, which have a higher potential value, could be isolated and extracted.

"These are new ways to remove muscles from the carcass," says Chris Calkins, University of Nebraska-Lincoln meat scientist and principle researcher in the study. "We want to get the concept of these muscles out there in the market. If the industry can start to adapt the technology we use in the lab, we'll see the higher-value muscles become more readily available."

Any time an individual muscle can be pulled and isolated, it eliminates variation in quality - providing more opportunity to market it for a specific use.

"Our next step is to help lay a path where the industry might go with this effort," says Mr. Gwartney. "End users must prioritize which muscles they want isolated from the chuck and round. And suppliers must figure the feasibility and cost of supplying what the market wants."

A new concept or just different packaging?

By some, the research is viewed as re-inventing the wheel. After all, the beef carcass is no different than it has always been. And the muscles identified are not new discoveries. In fact, other countries already isolate individual muscles and they market cuts of beef that are not typically in the meat case in the United States. Processors note that getting individual muscles out of the carcass is possible but not without additional costs and not without major restructuring of chain speeds and processing facilities.

Still, the research gives processors and retailers a base upon which to evaluate new possibilities for cuts that have always been there. The flat iron is one example. Oregon Country Beef (OCB), a producer-owned, branded beef alliance in the Northwest, has added value to lower value cuts and thus the whole carcass. One muscle in the chuck, commonly called the flat iron, is extremely tender. There is an added cost for the packer to remove the muscle, but OCB is able to market the product for a substantial profit above costs. This one muscle is adding $1 per hundredweight to the value of their carcasses according to Connie Hatfield who organized OCB 15 years ago with her husband, Doc, and fellow Oregon Ranchers.

And there are plenty of good reasons to pursue additional methods to increase the value of the chuck and round. The chuck and round have performed poorly for the last decade compared to other parts of the carcass. That's bad news when you considering the chuck and round primals makeup almost two-thirds of the total carcass weight. The good news is that while beef demand had made a 20-year decline, the last two years some positive trends have occurred in the demand for beef and for the chuck and round. Round prices have increased 14 percent since 1998 and chuck prices have improved nearly 22 percent. These improvements in values are all the more substantial because beef production and demand has been on the rise - not simply a result of smaller supplies.

"The price trend on chuck and round meat is very positive and suggests that the industry's effort to improve demand for end meats is beginning to work," says Randy Blach, director of market analysis for Cattle Fax. "Research, new product development, convenience and more consistent product have all played a role in their turnaround."

But increases in value of the chuck and round will have to continue if cattle prices are going to reach new heights over the next few years.

"The long term success of building improved demand for beef will be best measured by tracking the progress on the chuck and round," says Mr. Blach.

With the checkoff-funded muscle-profiling study as a base reference, processors and retailers, aided by beef producers, can better communicate opportunities to maximize the use and value of the underutilized muscles. It's not the answer but rather the launching point for hundreds of new questions and greater dialog between the segments in the beef marketing chain.