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.

Just sitting on the shelf

“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.

A hit with customers

Safeway customers have taken to the brand in droves. Though sales and volume figures are confidential, the company introduced the brand in a single division; today it's in nine divisions, with multiple stores in each.

More telling, Dolezal estimates the volume of Rancher's Reserve beef is on par with the domestic retail tonnage for CAB. Throw in international and food service sales, and Dolezal says CAB still leads but Rancher's Reserve is growing fast.

For perspective, Rancher's Reserve consists primarily of High Select and Low Choice carcasses. Its price tag is higher than commodity beef of the same grades but less than Premium Choice brands.

“It has been well received because Rancher's Reserve delivers on its promise of tender beef,” Sheeran says.

However, both Sheeran and Dolezal explain the success of the brand has to do with everything that goes into it, from pre-harvest sorting, to post-harvest tenderness interventions, to SSF testing, to Safeway's commitment to train its personnel and age the product a minimum of 14 days in its stores and distribution centers.

“This fits our overall goals and strategies to offer unique solutions to our customers, which enables them to differentiate themselves,” Dolezal says.

For any producer worried that genetics may take a back seat to technology when it comes to providing consumers a tender eating experience, don't be. Dolezal and CMS already traversed that line of thought, hoping it would be possible. Early on, he says, “We thought technology could overcome any seasonality in tenderness, but genetics and management overwhelm it.”

In fact, these days CMS and the life sciences company, MMI Genomics, are working together to devise a DNA test to enable them to start sorting out tender cattle ahead of the feedlot.

Even with the best technology in the world, when it comes to tenderness, Dolezal says, “you still can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.”

 

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