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:

Discovering hidden value

  • From the shoulder clod: flat iron, petite tender and ranch steak.
  • From the round: sirloin tip side and tip center, and the western griller and western tip.

  • From the chuck roll: America's beef roast, boneless country-style beef chuck ribs, Delmonico steak, Denver cut and Sierra cut.

“The beauty of the program is that it discovers hidden value in the chuck and round and creates more moderately priced steak options for consumers and foodservice operators,” says Jim Ethridge, director of NCBA's New Product Industry Partnerships effort.

But doing things differently does require a little cajoling. “It does take a lot of education to learn how to fabricate this properly,” Wasser says in reference to the flat iron. “In the case of the flat iron, it's not enough to just single out the infraspinatus muscle; you must also filet out the connective tissue that's in the middle of this muscle.”

The challenge is to not only find the muscles, systematize the cutting techniques and provide the education to fabricators, but users must be convinced of the economic advantages. For the Beef Innovations Group, which is tasked with getting these products to market, that means pulling products through the system by beginning with consumers. Then comes face time with meat processors, chefs and retailers; culinary applications and recipe development; government agency approvals; developing public relations and marketing materials; and additional consumer testing in major cities.

See associated figure

While all that sounds like a lot of effort, one can hardly argue with the results. In 2007, foodservice volume in flat iron steaks totaled 90 million lbs., making it the undisputed star in the BVC program. Meanwhile, 47 million lbs. of petite tenders and 37 million lbs. of ranch steaks were sold that year, as well. That's pretty impressive when one contrasts those volumes to the 29 million lbs. and 59 million lbs. of porterhouse and T-bone steaks, respectively, sold in 2007.

In 2006, BVC products were available in 9,900 retail stores nationwide, almost double the year before at 5,000. Just 321 stores were participating in 2003. The bottom line, Wasser points out, is that, from the shoulder clod alone, CattleFax estimates $50-$70/head in carcass value has been added since 1998.

The next frontier

That brings BVC to what Wasser and Ethridge call “the next frontier” — merchandizing of BVC products from the chuck roll, which debuted late last year. These include:

  • Beef Chuck Eye Roast Boneless (America's Beef Roast)

  • Beef Chuck Eye Country Style Ribs Boneless

  • Beef Chuck Eye Steak Boneless (Delmonico)

  • Beef Chuck Under Blade Center Steak Boneless (Denver Cut)

  • Beef Chuck Underblade Flat Cut Splenius (Sierra Cut)

Ethridge is optimistic about their future. “The initial wave of Value Cuts took 10 years before we started to see some traction out in the country, but the encouraging part is that there's a lot more work to fabricating a shoulder than a chuck roll. Plus, we've already laid out the groundwork somewhat with our earlier work on the shoulder clod,” he says. “As a result, we expect exciting performance for these cuts in the marketplace in the near future. In fact, they're experiencing initial success regionally in limited amounts in both foodservice and retail.”

Table 1. Warner-Bratzler shear force rank

Rank Muscle Subprimal
1 Psoas major Tenderloin
2 Infraspinatus Shoulder clod
3 Spinalis dorsi Ribeye/chuck roll
4 Serratus ventralis Chuck roll
5 Multifidus dorsi Chuck roll
6 Subscapularis Chuck
7 Teres major Shoulder clod
8 Rectus femoris Knuckle
9 Tensor fascia latae Sirloin
10 Biceps brachii Chuck

Source: Beef Innovations Group

Five of the top 10 most tender muscles in the beef carcass are from the chuck, which has traditionally been merchandized as ground beef or slow-cook roasts.