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U.S. beef industry to offer ‘tender’ cuts

Back in the days when oxen past their prime usually ended up on dinner plates, there was a saying that eaters of such fare would “sit down hungry and stand up tired.”

A century or so later, with the realization that tenderness is one of the most significant factors in consumer acceptance of beef, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is set to launch a new program which will guarantee it on the label.

Mark Klassen, director of technical services for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said that it appears that the USDA is using a mechanical shear force testing protocol that uses meat cores or slices taken from middle cuts or the loin area of a carcass to measure how much pressure is required to cut it.

“You could use that method on any piece of beef that you had an interest in knowing the tenderness of,” said Klassen, who added that gauging the tenderness of the entire carcass could be done just by testing a few loin samples.

A recent post on the USDA’s blog explained the new criteria. Although some beef may not technically make the top grades such as Choice or Prime, it may in fact be rated just as tender by consumers, and similarly, certain cuts of beef, no matter how high their USDA quality grade, may not be as tender.

To address these issues and provide consumers with a more useful purchasing tool, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) worked with academia and industry to develop an accurate system to rate beef cuts as either tender or very tender.

Based on an objective scale, the system ensures that specific beef cuts consistently meet these established thresholds. Now, approved beef processors will be able to market products as “USDA-Certified Tender” or “Very Tender” through product labelling, advertisements and promotions.

On the Canadian side, Klassen said that data collected from Beef Quality Audits based on lab studies using shear force techniques and consumer assessments since 2001 have shown that the overall trend in beef north of the border appears to be steadily moving towards increased tenderness.

He added that the CCA is also working with the beef industry to develop ways to use shear force measuring instruments and existing grading tools to create a new classification system for Canadian beef that might be similar to the USDA’s.

“We’re trying to figure out the most cost-effective ways to determine tenderness,” said Klassen, who added that a system might be ready within a couple of years.

Canada’s existing grading system is a fairly reliable measure of overall eating quality, he said. Although it doesn’t specifically address tenderness, the other indications built into it can be used to infer that a particular cut will be tender.

“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s certainly a useful system,” said Klassen. “But with what we’re working on now, we hope to get to the point where in a very practical way we can make an assessment of tenderness while we’re grading.”

In June, Cargill became the first processor to have a program certified by USDA, and there are two other programs under review — one other beef processor and a major grocery store chain.

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