“Naively, we thought if we could provide an accurate measure of tenderness there would be a lot of takers; it languished on the shelf for almost a decade,” Koohmaraie says.

That was until Safeway came across the research in the late 1990s. By 2002, Safeway was convinced the technology could be incorporated into a system enabling it to create its own beef brand guaranteed to be tender.

By then, Glen Dolezal, CMS director of new technology applications, says CMS had also added SSF to its arsenal of tenderness tools. Besides being tested for tenderness, Rancher's Reserve carcasses experience a host of other tenderness interventions, including electro-stimulation and mechanical stretching processes patented by CMS.

How it works

In the simplest of terms, CMS utilizes vision cameras and electronic testing to help sort out carcasses that should qualify for Rancher's Reserve. The folks there have also tenderness-tested at least 15 carcasses from 1,300 of their largest feedlot suppliers, so they know where the most tender cattle are coming from most often, and Dolezal says they're beginning to understand the management and genetic factors that contribute to it. This is in addition to extensive company research examining the seasonality of tenderness.

Among the pool of eligible carcasses, CMS randomly tests carcasses with SSF every day in three different labs.

Moreover, Sheeran explains, “Safeway didn't want to rely on any supplier telling us what tenderness was, so we decided to build our own lab to validate what the supplier was telling us.”

Basically, Safeway pulls meat from its shelves, then tests it for SSF in its lab to validate that tenderness meets the proprietary specification they and CMS agreed to. Having its own lab means Safeway can pull meat from competitors' cases to see how they stack up, too.

“We've placed a high value on providing tender beef, and the confidence of knowing it's tender is worth the cost of doing it. It's one thing for a retailer to say they have tender beef, and another to have the data to substantiate it like we do,” Sheeran says.

For perspective, Sheeran says Safeway and CMS have sampled about 250,000 carcasses with SSF, so far. He says all the SSF testing done by others adds up to maybe 10,000 samples each year.

Safeway believes so strongly in its ability to sift the tough from the tender that it offers a unique guarantee to customers. If someone is dissatisfied, not only does Safeway refund their money, but gives the customer another package of meat, the same cut of equal or higher value.

“It was important to me to give them their money back, plus the opportunity to try the product again, on us. We believe in it that strongly. Anyone can give them their money back, or even twice their money. I want them to try it again because if they do I know they'll be back,” Sheeran says. “I can tell you with a high degree of confidence you'll have a good eating experience with the Rancher's Reserve product line.”

Part of that confidence comes with the objectivity provided by SSF. Dolezal explains, “I like it because it's based on science. Instead of merely a visual estimate used for pricing (quality grades), this is an objective measure.

“We like the repeatability of it, and the simplicity from the standpoint you can take one slice instead of six cores,” Dolezal says.