When you have your whole calf crop in the pen for weaning but a summer thunderstorm knocks out your hydraulic chute and electronic scales, it's kind of hard to remember that technology is a good thing. But on down the line, especially at the packers, further processors and the supermarket meatcase, technology is making your product safer, tastier and more convenient.

Start with the big issue — safety. No matter how delicious and handy that pre-cooked burger is, if consumers think it will make them sick, they aren't going to buy it.

“Packing plants look entirely different from 10 years ago,” says researcher Mohammad Koohmaraie, U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE.

“The industry has been extremely proactive in using intervention measures to reduce the level of pathogens, particularly E. coli 0157:H7,” he continues.

Koohmaraie says the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), American Meat Institute (AMI), government and university researchers and packers are cooperating to put safety measures to work. The job of pathogen reduction starts on the kill floor and continues until the cattle are in the cooler.

Steam, steam vacuuming and hot water rinses take place after the hide is off. In some packing plants, organic acid washes, including lactic, citric and acetic acid, also help wash off any traces of pathogens. Then, steam pasteurization is usually the last step before the cooler.

At Excel, they go another step and douse the carcass with chilled water right after steam pasteurization.

“There is temperature shock both ways,” says Excel vice president Dell Allen. “In my opinion, this is probably our most effective intervention.”

Koohmaraie says these collective actions dramatically reduce pathogens, particularly E. coli 0157:H7. Incidence of E. coli varies by season, he adds. The worst comes in mid summer when 40-50% of cattle might test positive for E. coli when they arrive at the packing plant.

“By the time the carcasses get to the cooler, we see one percent or less,” he adds.

More safety measures are on the way. USDA recently approved the use of lactoferrin as a coating for fresh beef. A natural protein found in milk and dairy products, it protects fresh beef from more than 30 types of pathogens, including E. coli and salmonella.

Mark Klein, Excel's communications director, says the company is taking a look at lactoferrin, as well as another microbial spray. They have also recently partnered with e-Merge Interactive on putting VerifEYE to work.

VerifEYE is the first commercial imaging system to detect microscopic contamination on beef. It's a real-time, electronically-controlled instrument that detects even minute amounts of organic contamination that can make it through the gauntlet of steam, hot water and acid rinses.

Excel is also involved in a pilot project on irradiation of ground beef using the SureBeam® electronic pasteurization process. Used after final packaging of the ground beef product, the process provides a 99.999% kill of food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter, listeria and E. coli 0157:H7.

“We're test-marketing both irradiated fresh and frozen ground beef to figure out if there is consumer acceptance,” says Allen. “We're also trying to identify the effect of irradiation on shelf life.”

Progress On Convenience

Along with safety, consumers insist on convenience. Hence the bumper crop of pre-cooked and microwave-ready beef products. Besides providing consumers with quick, easy alternatives to poultry, these products are also bumping up demand for the chuck, round and, hopefully, cull cows.

An NCBA-funded project is doing its part by helping make the chuck, round and cow beef more user-friendly for further processors.

In a muscle profiling study, the University of Nebraska's Chris Calkins and University of Florida's Dwain Johnson evaluated 39 different muscles of the chuck and round from 144 finished carcasses, a total of more than 5,500 muscles.

“We created a book, or encyclopedia of knowledge, about those muscles,” says Calkins. “We wanted to add value to those muscles so they could be used in value-added products.”

That book comes in CD form and also features a color-coded chart of the muscles' characteristics. Calkins says the information has been translated into five languages and is used by packers, processors, food service, the retail industry, U.S. Meat Export Federation and the U.S. government.

He says NCBA also used the information to identify a series of value cuts that can be removed from the chuck and round. An example is the flat-iron steak — actually the top blade — which he notes is “one of the two or three most tender muscles in the carcass.”

Calkins says the top blade has a seam of connective tissue that prevented it from being popular with consumers, but the seam can be removed with a cut similar to filleting a fish. Now, the flat-iron steak is a hot item in trendy restaurants.

“It's come close to selling itself. It's doing very, very well,” he comments.

Calkins and Johnson are also working on a similar project with cow muscles. However, these muscles are not limited to the chuck and round.

“NCBA felt like there was much about the cow carcass we didn't know,” explains Johnson. “A large portion of that carcass is being ground or used for sausage manufacturing. There may be some opportunities to retrieve some added value from higher-quality cows or higher-quality muscles.”

Johnson says they're looking at value-added products — further tenderized, seasoned, marinated, pre-cooked products and more convenient fajita strips, roasts and steaks.

“We hope to enhance some of the whole-muscle cuts and roasts that are marginal in palatability with marination. This will increase their value and usability. Some of these cow muscles may really lend themselves to this new technology,” Johnson says.

In IBP's Thomas E. Wilson line, the technology of injecting primals with marinades has already proven itself. IBP's Brian McFarlane says the technology “significantly improves flavor, tenderness and juiciness. In addition, it protects the product from overcooking in the household, again improving the eating experience for the customer.”

While Johnson says the equipment needed to inject marinade is fairly simple, the tenderness challenge is also being addressed with high-tech gadgets. For instance, packers are finding digital and video cameras useful in sorting carcasses by grade and yield.

Computer Vision Systems (CVS), manufactured by Research Management Systems USA, is a dual-component, digital imaging system that starts analyzing the carcass while it's still on the harvest floor. It takes pictures and measurements of the entire beef carcass from both sides. Then, another camera takes a picture and measures the chilled ribeye.

“It's programmed to predict the saleable yield of individual carcasses,” explains Keith Belk, Colorado State University animal scientist. “It takes the place of USDA yield grade. It assigns yield in more accurate increments and assigns price in a more accurate way and can immediately transfer the information.”

But there's more. To go along with the CVS units, Belk and his co-workers have developed BeefCam technology. With video imaging, BeefCam can measure the color of the fat and lean of the ribeye.

“It does a pretty good job of sorting carcasses into groups according to how the meat will eat after it has been aged and cooked,” Belk says. “It's not perfect. I don't know anybody who can predict with absolute certainty how a carcass will eat. There are additional changes in a carcass in time, and cooking impacts eating quality.”

It's sufficiently accurate, however, that the folks at Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef have put their faith in it. At the Sam Kane packing plant that handles Nolan Ryan beef, BeefCam gives the operator a red or a green light based on its tenderness calculations.

If the light is green, the operator stamps the carcass with a “T” and it moves on to the USDA grader. If the light is red, the carcass doesn't go in the Nolan Ryan line.

Charlie Bradbury, the Nolan Ryan CEO, says the system is 90-95% accurate.

“With the BeefCam, electrical stimulation and aging the beef 14 days, we greatly reduce the odds of a negative eating experience,” he says.

Since the startup of the guaranteed-tender product line in May 2000, Nolan Ryan has sold more than $8-million worth of beef and refunded just $692, says Bradbury. “We virtually have no complaints about the tenderness, but we hear lots of compliments,” he says.

Genetic Checks

Researchers are hoping to tag that animal with a tendency toward tenderness or toughness long before it ever hits the red light/green light of the BeefCam, though. More preferable would be the day the animal is born or, at the latest, when he gets to the feedlot. That's why DNA studies on tenderness and marbling are ongoing, both in the U.S. and overseas.

For instance, Cornell, Kansas State (KSU), Texas A&M and Colorado State universities, along with a private firm, Celera Ag Gen, are cooperating in a four-year study. They're testing 11 gene markers for ribeye area, tenderness and marbling in more than 8,000 finished steers and heifers sired by bulls from 15 different breed associations.

“The project still has quite a ways to go in testing the markers,” says KSU animal scientist Michael Dikeman. “But on a limited number, we're finding that some sires are apparently heterozygous for different markers.

“A particular sire will have one marker for tenderness that is favorable and one that is not favorable. Half of his progeny will be above average in tenderness and half below average. Another sire may be homozygous for the favorable marker and all of his progeny will be above average in tenderness,” Dikeman says.

So, don't look for easy answers, at least at this point.

“DNA analysis is informative. It will increase the accuracy of selection, and it could be a preliminary screening tool,” says Dikeman. “But it is not a quick and easy, silver-bullet approach — at least not in the near future.”

Dikeman says that just like birth or weaning weights, it's not likely that one single gene or marker determines an animal's palatability traits.

“Maybe in a year or so we can take a blood or hair sample and identify the animals that have the tendency to be favorable or unfavorable in a particular trait,” he says. “It probably won't be that simple, however. In two years or five years, though, it may be.”

But the study is already paying dividends for the participating breed associations. Based on data from the study, the Simmental and Simbrah associations have generated and published EPD data for Warner-Bratzler shear force values, an instrument measurement of tenderness, on more than 100 of their most widely used sires. A few other breeds are close to publishing tenderness EPDs, as well, Dikeman comments.

DNA tests will affect management as well as breeding decisions, says MARC's Koohmaraie. Genetics, he says, count for 30% or more of meat tenderness, and a DNA blood test for tenderness will be a useful tool.

“In the feedlot, we can screen all the calves for feed efficiency, carcass composition and meat quality, so we'll know how to manage and market them,” he says.

Identification's A Key

But — before any of these high-tech tools can work, you have to be able to tell which critter is which. The same goes for producers getting performance and carcass data back on their cattle.

Of course, there are electronic identification (EID) tags, both with bar codes and radio frequencies. The problem, Belk says, is that nothing so far is tamper-proof.

Retinal scanning technology will change that, he says. About to be released commercially, Belk says retinal scanning “is about as tamper-proof as you can get.”

Such a system would involve scanning the eyeball of each animal as its identification. Retinal patterns are like fingerprints. Each animal's is unique, Belk explains.

“This is CIA-type stuff,” Belk says. Once the animal's retina is scanned, “a global positioning system stamps the place and date on it. Then we can pass the information about the cattle and carcasses up and down the production chain.

For 10 years, Belk says, the admonishment to U.S. beef producers has been that one can't manage what one can't measure. All the new tools will allow producers, feeders, packers and retailers to now measure and manage. And hopefully make the product more marketable and profitable.

Becky Mills is a freelance writer based in Cuthbert, GA.

Case-Ready Is Safety-Ready

One of the biggest safety-boosters for beef is the trend toward case-ready products.

“The best thing case-ready technology does is move packaging from the backrooms of grocery stores upstream to centralized packaging plants,” says Keith Belk, Colorado State University animal scientist. “It reduces by 10 times or more the number of people who are actually handling the product.”

For example, Belk says if a batch of ground beef from one packer is going to 150 stores, as many as 600-700 people could handle it. With case-ready, that's reduced to one or two.

“I can't think of a major retailer who isn't using some case-ready ground beef,” Belk adds. “Steaks and roasts are moving in that direction. They don't want to take the risk of handling it.”

IBP's Brian McFarlane says case-ready provides source identification and eliminates the possibility of cross-contamination at the store level. Besides reducing the number of people handling the beef, the packaging itself is another safety boon.

IBP's Thomas E. Wilson line uses a high-oxygen, modified atmosphere, Belk explains. It replaces the air in the package with 80% oxygen and 20% carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide helps reduce the growth of bacteria. He says that buys the product extra shelf life — usually around 10 days, up from three to seven days with conventional packaging.

“That's long enough for the beef to get to the stores and be displayed long enough for somebody to buy it,” he says.

Another low-oxygen technology McFarlane likes that will provide 21-24 days of shelf life pulls the air out of the inside of the package and replaces it with a nitrogen/carbon dioxide mix. Scavengers in the mix hunt down oxygen left in the meat as soon as it escapes and gobbles it up.

There is another plus for case-ready technology — a major one for any consumer forced to clean up a refrigerator mess caused by a leaking package of thawed beef. “These packages are leak proof,” says McFarlane.

McFarlane also says case-ready beef gives retailers more time for customer service and merchandizing, since they are spending less time packaging products.

Belk says case-ready technology has benefited the beef industry by improving convenience, safety, efficiency and management.

“In five to 10 years, most of the beef will be sold as case-ready,” he says.