Nolan Ryan launches a winning beef formula based on beef products that are tender, natural and lean.

If a branded beef product's success rested solely on name identification, the future of Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef label would be secure.

Ryan, a baseball Hall of Famer, is nationally revered for his competitiveness (a record seven no-hit major league games), athleticism (a record 5,714 strikeouts), and healthy, active lifestyle (27 years as a professional player).

You don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate those qualities; you simply must admire excellence. Millions of Americans do, equating Ryan's name with superiority.

Ryan, a lifelong South Texas rancher, understands, however, that no beef product will succeed just because it carries his name. So he's insisted on specifications for his branded beef company that reflect positive qualities consumers want in branded beef - a tender, natural and lean product at a reasonable price.

"Living an active lifestyle and being conscious of my diet, I've always believed beef played a major role in my life and my career," Ryan says. "I thought it would be a positive for the cattle business to have a product that cattlemen would stand behind."

In short, that's how Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef (NRTAB) became the first all-natural lean and tender product certified by USDA. By mid-summer 2000, NRTAB will have its product line in all 125 supermarkets of the Texas-based Randalls Food Stores in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston - four of five major Texas population centers.

NRTAB is brought to market under production and management practices designed to eliminate most consumer and retailer concerns identified in two National Beef Quality Audits (NBQA). Its approach is high-tech and combined with some of the oldest tools known to the industry so that NRTAB can unconditionally guarantee its products' tenderness.

State-of-the-art digital video technology, developed in part with beef checkoff dollars at Colorado State University (CSU), identifies tender carcasses. The program also requires licensed packers to employ high-voltage electrical stimulation and to age cuts a minimum of 14 days to achieve optimum tenderness before its product reaches retail meat cases. (See "Tenderness Guaranteed With The BeefCam,(tm)" page 29.)

NRTAB's approach to guaranteeing tenderness already has garnered the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which detailed the company's tenderness-ensuring methods in a May 25 front-page article.

Publicity, though, is an added bonus. The real benefit to the industry of NRTAB's tenderness assurance practices is that they are blind to breed markings. That means NRTAB can utilize an untapped wealth of Bos indicus-influenced cattle in Gulf Coast states - supplies that every other branded beef product company refuse. In fact, the company encourages and prefers Bos indicus-influenced cattle in the program.

This wider pool of cattle allows the company to achieve about a 33% success rate in identifying tender carcasses from USDA Select Yield Grade 1 and 2 carcasses. (The 1995 NBQA reported that 47% of the nation's fed cattle fall into the Select grade - the largest proportion of any quality grade.)

"The structure of this program is the key to beef's future," says Gary Smith, distinguished professor and holder of the Monfort chair in meat science at CSU. "Research at Texas A&M University has shown that electrical stimulation and aging at least 14 days will resolve most of our tenderness problems."

"By using the BeefCam,(tm) we can identify another 1 to 2 percent of tender carcasses. If this company can live with the rate of failure, since about 67 percent of the carcasses will not make it, then it can be successful," he says.

Smith also likes NRTAB's approach to keeping beef producers informed of their calves' performance. The program's data flow up and down the supply chain, giving producers penetrating glimpses at their calves' important economic qualities including tenderness, ribeye area and fat thickness.

"Bos indicus breeders, especially, have a difficult problem identifying tender beef," says Smith, who cooperated on previous NBQA studies. "But, if these breeders can identify the tender lines of cattle, they will be a force in the industry. The information sent up and down the line by the BeefCam(tm) will help them. Genetic selection pressure will move the lines, families and strains of the tender cattle forward."

Individual ID Will Be Required Alliances with producers haven't been an essential element of the program yet, says Charlie Bradbury, CEO of Beefmaster Cattlemen L.P., owner of the NRTAB label. The certified feedyard operators have acquired enough supplies to supplement the cattle placed in the program by Ryan and other commercial Beefmaster operators. However, the program specifies that every calf must have individual ID, which will have important ramifications for creating alliances down the road.

"Our immediate goal is to make Bos indicus-influenced cattle more competitive in the marketplace, and right now they're not. We also want to get commercial cattlemen as much carcass information as we can. And, with the technology we're using and with individual animal ID, it is possible to e-mail these data to them within a half hour after the BeefCam(tm) scans a ribeye."

For Ryan and other beef producers putting cattle in the program, the whole concept is a breath of fresh air in a cattle industry that was getting a little too confined for their tastes.

"I was frustrated, as so many breeders and producers were, with the bad rap that our Bos indicus-influenced cattle had received," says Ryan, who raises registered and commercial Beefmaster cattle. "We were getting penalized in the marketplace for our eared cattle, yet buyers were eager to buy them because they were profitable for somebody. Something there didn't make sense."

Three years ago, Beefmaster Breeders United (BBU), the breed registry for the Beefmaster breed, decided to investigate that incongruity. BBU conducted tests with CSU to prove Bos indicus-influenced calves could produce tender beef. Then, it worked with Agri-West International Inc., of San Antonio, a domestic and international marketing firm, to develop a brand identity and to create a tender program using the new BeefCam(tm) technology.

From this initial work, BBU created Beefmaster Cattlemen L.P. of which Ryan is an owner. BBU remains general partner of this limited partnership.

"Once we knew Bos indicus-influenced cattle were tender, lean and flavorful, we knew we had a market for our beef," Ryan says. "At that point, as a beef producer, I was certainly interested in getting involved and happy to put my name on the product."

An "All Natural" Label An important step was developing the program so USDA could certify the product as "all natural."

"I wanted the management practices to be such that this product would meet 'all-natural' requirements," Ryan says. "Consumers have told us they want to look at the package and tell it's natural. So we developed a set of specs that we are asking producers and feedlot operators to meet."

Bradbury says the program requires certified feedyards to avoid growth promoting implants and antibiotics during the last 100 days on feed.

Another feedyard requirement holds interest among retailers. Approved feeders have to administer 50,000 oral IUs of vitamin E prior to slaughter. Vitamin E preserves the cherry color and extends retail shelf life.

At present, the product line includes ribeye, tenderloin, sirloin and strip steaks. It also includes a case-ready 94% lean ground round beef, round roasts, chuck roasts and cube steaks. In the future, the line will include processed meats, hot dogs and pre-cooked, heat-and-serve roast beef and chicken-fried steak products.

Although Ryan is in the first stage of his label's roll-out, he already is planning for the future. "In five years, I would like to see us take the program nationwide so we would be able to have more producers involved and create a real demand for Bos indicus-influenced cattle," says the baseball Hall of Famer. "To do that, we also will need more feedyards and more packers involved, but that's where we want to go."

For more information on NRTAB contact Charlie Bradbury at 936/436-1622.

The video imaging analysis (VIA) technology that permits Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef (NRTAB) to guarantee its tenderness signals a new milestone in the palatability race.

BeefCam(tm) technology was developed and commercialized by Smart Machine Vision Inc. (SmartMV), a subsidiary of Hunter Associates Laboratory, Reston, VA. It's a non-invasive, non-destructive tool that accurately measures tenderness.

Colorado State University's Keith Belk was among the first meat scientists to recognize VIA technology's potential based on experiments that suggested lean and fat color may be related to cooked beef palatability. Belk contacted HunterLab about the technology it developed for other industries to use to determine product uniformity by measuring color variations.

Subsequent tests, conducted in part with beef checkoff dollars and Beefmaster Breeders United, showed the technology could identify tender carcasses with 95-97% accuracy. CSU and HunterLab then formed a partnership in which the university has the intellectual property and SmartMV has the worldwide license.

Ken Ingersoll, SmartMV president and CEO, and Marty Goldberg, its executive president and COO, say the BeefCam(tm) is so accurate it sorts out many tender carcasses that probably should make the cut.

"When this technology doesn't certify it as tender, it doesn't mean it's tough," Goldberg says. "It just means it can't verify its tenderness. However, if the camera says it is tender, it is tender."

NRTAB's program is the first to use BeefCam,(tm) Ingersoll says. The camera was installed for Beefmaster Cattlemen L.P., the owner of the NRTAB label, at Sam Kane Beef Processors Inc., in Corpus Christi, NRTAB's first certified plant.

A video image is taken of the ribeye in real time at line speed. Within seconds, its color analysis can determine whether the carcass will meet tenderness specifications.

"The primary output for the BeefCam(tm) is to identify beef that is palatable," Goldberg says. "But part and parcel of the system are other useful ratings that are important to sorting cattle. For instance, it measures color of fat, color of lean, ribeye area, percent fat, thickness of fat and marbling scores."

Beefmaster Cattlemen L.P. will provide these data to producers to help identify the families within various Bos indicus-influenced breeds that will propagate tender beef.

SmartMV will further the tenderness cause by marketing its BeefCam(tm) in other beef and pork packing plants in the U.S., South America and Asia for both commodity and branded programs.

On April 23, just three weeks before the retail launch of the branded beef product bearing his name, Nolan Ryan's name hit national headlines. He had undergone emergency double-bypass heart surgery after suffering shortness of breath while walking around Dell Diamond, the home of his minor league baseball team, near Austin.

It wasn't the kind of publicity most people would want just before kicking off a branded beef program. But, Ryan isn't most people. At least that's what Dr. John D. Oswalt of Austin, president of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons, the team that operated on Ryan, discovered.

While some heart disease is caused by outside influences, the doctors quickly determined that Ryan had led an exemplary life, both from an exercise and diet standpoint.

"What we saw with Nolan Ryan is what we see with the majority of patients that have a genetic predisposition to atherosclerosis," Oswalt says. "There is no way we can make an assumption that diet played any role in his disease, particularly with a patient as healthy and fit as he is."

Oswalt says when the heart team examined Ryan, tests showed his arteries "totally clear."

"Mr. Ryan's kind of heart disease is atypical of what we'd see with persons with high cholesterol and dietary reasons for heart disease," Oswalt says.

With cholesterol ruled out, the surgical team looked for problems consistent with inherited heart disease. That led them to a blockage in the left coronary artery, which supplies 75% of the blood to the heart.

They operated the same day Ryan first felt ill. Because Ryan has always eaten right and continued to exercise since he retired from major league baseball in 1993, his doctors praise his lifestyle for helping him rebound from a dangerous disease.

"His prognosis is excellent," Oswalt says. "By sticking with the diet that he has, which includes beef, he should have a normal life expectancy for a man his age."

Ryan's business interests today remain as diverse as before his illness. They include his registered and commercial ranches in three South Texas counties, the branded product that bears his name, the Round Rock Express, which is a Double A farm team of the Houston Astros, and other business ventures.