Beef tenderness may not be everything when it comes to consumer eating satisfaction, but guaranteeing it can propel a relatively young beef brand into the same major tonnage league as the venerable Certified Angus Beef® (CAB).

This is where Rancher's Reserve® — a beef brand owned by Safeway and supplied exclusively by Cargill Meat Solutions (CMS) — is after only a few short years.

“Beef is the king of commodities. It's the one that drives people into the store,” explains Jim Sheeran, vice president of corporate meat for Safeway. That's why Safeway embarked nine years ago on figuring out how to differentiate the beef they offered from everyone else.

The folks at Safeway arrived at tenderness as a primary point of differentiation because, Sheeran explains, “Every focus group we conducted indicated the most important aspect of beef-eating satisfaction was tenderness.”

Problem was, for Safeway and everyone else in the business, tenderness was tough to predict simply, accurately and consistently.

“A significant amount of Select grade beef tests tender, and a significant amount of Choice grade beef, even Premium Choice beef, tests tough. So, I can tell you quality grade isn't a very accurate predictor of tenderness,” Sheeran says. “In other premium programs, there's a good chance the product will be tender, but there's also the possibility it will be tough.”

Sheeran is referring to the Warner-Bratzler shear force (WBSF) test. With it, taking six core samples from the longissimus muscle (the ribeye in cowboy terms) and cooking them to a consistent degree of doneness, a device is used to measure how much force (equivalent to a human bite) is required to shear through the meat. The more force used, the tougher the meat and vice versa.

However, Steven Shackelford, a research food technologist at USDA's Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE, explains the WBSF process takes about 40 minutes. So, it's not practical in the fast-chain world of large beef packers.

Using a single slice

MARC researchers spent a fair bit of time and energy pondering the dilemma and trying to devise a more efficient way to evaluate beef carcasses in order to predict tenderness.

“None of the biochemical measures we tried could do what a single WBSF measurement could: guarantee tenderness,” Shackelford says.

More specifically, Shackelford says, when they explored the relationship between various biological factors and tenderness, none could account for even half the variation (14 days after harvest). Yet as much as 61% of the variation could be accounted for by taking a WBSF measurement a single day after harvest.

Long story short, Shackelford, along with fellow MARC researchers, Tommy Wheeler (acting research leader for the meats research unit) and Mohammad Koohmaraie (MARC director) devised a tenderness classification system using what is called a Slice Shear Force (SSF) measurement. Instead of taking cores from the longissimus muscle, they take a thin slice (about 0.5 in. thick and 2 in. long).

 

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With SSF, the slice can be obtained accurately and steaks can be cooked faster and more consistently using a continuous conveyor-belt cooking system. Consequently, SSF predictions have proven more accurate than those using the traditional WBSF test. Bottom line, results can be known in 15 minutes or less, the same period of time meat graders wait for the ribeye to bloom before assessing quality grade.

Plenty of algorithms and analysis later, the MARC crew discovered taking a SSF measurement the second day after harvest accurately predicts carcass tenderness as measured by a trained sensory panel at 14 days after harvest. In fact, the process accurately classifies carcasses as tender, tough or intermediate 94% of the time.