In the development of new beef cuts that add value to cattle and stimulate consumer demand, discovery is just the first step.

This week in Denver, representatives of the Beef Checkoff and the Beef Innovations Group 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. This cut, which is the second-most tender muscle on the beef carcass, comes from the “shoulder clod” portion of the Chuck. Traditionally, the muscle was included in Chuck roasts or ground beef. But muscle-profiling research, sponsored by the Beef Checkoff and conducted at the Universities of Florida and Nebraska in the late 1990’s, 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, the Flat Iron is not easily removed from the Shoulder Clod. Extra labor is required to separate the muscle and remove a large strip of connective tissue that runs between the two Flat Irons on each side of beef, and some yield is lost in the process. 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 Flat Iron steaks. 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 also identified the “Petite Tender,” which also comes from the shoulder clod. This muscle, in contrast, is easy to remove, and packers today routinely cut the small piece for packaging and sale to food-service customers prior to packaging the shoulder clod. Restaurants buy all they can produce and wish there were more than two Petite Tenders on each carcass.

Today, the Beef Innovations Group 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 Steak.

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 too big, and have to be cut too thin, to meet restaurant specifications 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, a lean, tender and flavorful steak 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 food-service operators will need to test these cuts and determine how they perform economically. Some retail and restaurant customers will continue to prefer traditional cuts. But continuing innovation will provide choices as markets, production systems and cattle genetics evolve into the future.