Infraspinatus, teres major, spinalis dorsi, serratus ventralis, multifidus dorsi. While these sound like the scientific names of Jurassic-era beasts, they're actually the names of five of the 10 most-tender muscles of the beef carcass, as measured by Warner-Bratzler shear force testing.

These cuts, however, are buried within the area of the beef carcass that ranges from the neck to the fifth rib of the chest cavity, a primal better known as the chuck. The chuck provides about 30% of the saleable product in a beef carcass but traditionally has been merchandized as ground beef or slow-cook roasts at a huge discount relative to the high-value steaks from the rib and loin.

“It's a dinosaur in today's value-added market,” says Bridget Wasser, associate director of product enhancement research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

The challenge of the chuck is that it consists of more than 15 individual muscles, some more tender than others. Taken together they can make for some tough and chewy eating. But using single-muscle fabrication, individual muscles can be singled out of a large multi-muscle complex to isolate cuts like the five muscles named above, which Wasser terms “diamonds in the rough.”

Mining the potential from these “diamonds” is the checkoff-funded effort called the Beef Value Cuts (BVC) program. The checkoff-funded program develops new products resulting from cutting techniques that reinvent multi-muscle cuts traditionally sold as larger roasts into more consumer-friendly portions that fill the price/value void between premium steaks and ground beef at retail.

Muscle profiling

Laying the groundwork for the program was a landmark muscle-profiling study conducted in the 1990s by meat scientists Chris Calkins of the University of Nebraska and Dwain Johnson of the University of Florida. In a checkoff-funded effort to gain more understanding about low-value primals, the pair examined many of the muscles in the chuck and round, the latter being the primal at the back end of the carcass.

The duo identified individual muscles for further application as value-added cuts. For instance, they learned the shoulder clod, a group of muscles in the chuck, harbored cuts as tender and tasty as the most coveted cuts from the loin or rib. (You can see the results of their work.)

Following that, the beef checkoff launched BVC. Besides creating more (moderately priced) steak options and discovering hidden value in the chuck and round, the effort includes demonstrating to processors and retailers how to fabricate and merchandize carcasses to take advantage of cuts like the flat iron steak (infraspinatus muscle), which hails from the chuck shoulder.

Muscle-profiling had revealed that the flat iron is a muscle second in tenderness only to the tenderloin. The flat iron debuted in 1999/2000. By 2003, the value of the chuck overall had increased by 60%, a jump in the wholesale price of 68¢/lb. to $1.08. In comparison, the round during that same time period had experienced a 32% increase (88¢/lb. to $1.16), the loin a 36% increase ($1.58 to $2.15), and the rib a 49% increase ($1.59 to $2.37).

Since the debut of the flat iron, a total of 11 value cuts have hit the market, with the latest five debuting late last year. The 11 cuts are: