Keeping the taste sizzling in steak (researchers say it’s all about the marbling)


WOOSTER, Ohio — Any good business manager knows success lies in repeat customers. And the beef industry knows that palatability and consistent, high-quality taste will keep its customers coming back.

“Beef is known for taste. If we forget that, we lose a huge price advantage to competing proteins,” said Glen Dolezal, Cargill Meat Solutions. “Whatever we do in the industry — whether pre-harvest or post-harvest — we’ve got to be sure beef continues to perform to consumers’ expectations for taste and tenderness.”

Dolezal chairs the beef industry’s Joint Product Enhancement Committee. During the 2009 fiscal year, the 50-person committee received nearly $1 million of Beef Checkoff monies from the Beef Promotion Operating Committee. Those dollars are used to support research that will have an impact on the entire industry.

The science of taste

One of the projects, spearheaded by Stephen Smith of Texas A & M University, aims to create more of those loyal beef customers. Smith, along with colleagues at the University of Idaho and Texas Tech University, is studying the marbling development in beef cattle.

The project will use three models to uncover how fat is deposited both inside and outside the muscle.

“In a nutshell, we’re trying to figure out how to improve quality grade and yield grade simultaneously by understanding the development of fat,” said Matt Doumit, University of Idaho meat scientist.

In plain English

Smith said recording the results have far-reaching effects.

“There is no question that the primary fatty acid in beef, oleic acid, increases as marbling increases in beef,” he said. “The research will document if we can also increase the concentrations of other fatty acids with documented health benefits in well marbled beef.”

The research

The trials will take three approaches to the same problem, said Doumit. His work will focus on the precursor cells, or pre-adipocytes, to see whether certain fatty acids prefer internal or external fat.

Texas Tech’s Brad Johnson will look at “going from a muscle satellite cell, or specialized muscle cell, and how it converts to intramuscular fat or marbling,” Doumit said.

Feeding impact?

Smith will study mature fat cells at different growth stages.

“This is a time when it’s difficult for the cattle industry because the price of feed is high and the price of beef is not, so anything the industry can do to improve efficiency and still maintain product quality is a benefit,” Doumit said.

The joint committee places emphasis on taste and tenderness, Dolezal said, “Because we feel strongly that we can’t sacrifice that and still preserve, much less increase, long-term beef demand.”

Angus support

The American Angus Association ‘s Research Priorities Committee set similar goals last fall, and sought financial support from its nonprofit affiliate Angus Foundation.

“Marbling and quality of end product surfaced in our priority list,” said Milford Jenkins, Foundation president. “If we can help our Angus seedstock and commercial producers enhance their profitably through utilization of Angus genetics, then we believe it’s a win-win-win.”

The foundation pledged $50,000 in supplemental funding to allow the scientists to also research how vitamins A and D affect fat deposition.

Pay attention

National Beef Quality Audit (link opens pdf) numbers quantify the magnitude of quality and yield grade challenges.

“It’s about a $1.3-billion problem for the industry by not having the optimum yield and quality grade distributions,” Doumit said.

Both are “heavily influenced” by fat deposition, Doumit said, so understanding how that happens at different places within the animal is critical to improving beef palatability and cutability.

Initial results may be published by next summer.

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