USDA sets beef tenderness standards

Nov 9, 2012

Ever wonder what that “guaranteed tender” sticker on beef packages at the store means? In the past, the definition varied from location to location or packer to packer. USDA has stepped in, however, and now requires specific, provable, consistent definitions to back claims of tenderness.

USDA and its Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) recently released new standards to govern marketing claims of “tender” or “very tender” on retail meat. The standards came after several years of investigation and a comment-gathering period with industry representatives and academics.

The goal is to reduce confusion for consumers and provide a means of navigating the often widely variable tenderness in meat, a particular issue with Select-grade beef.

The new tenderness claims standards require that any product labeled “tender” must test between 8.6-9.7 pounds of pressure according to the Warner- Bratzler shear force (WBSF) measure, or 33.73-44.09 pounds of pressure according to the slice shear force (SSF) measure. For the “very tender” label, product must cut under less than 8.6 pounds of pressure or 33.73 pounds of pressure, under the respective measures.

The difference in pressure ranges between WBSF measure and SSF measure comes from the different protocols used. Despite their different protocol, both measurements have been found to be highly correlated with cooked beef tenderness as subjectively assessed by panels of both trained experts and untrained consumers.

Both measurements focus on the cutability of the longissimus muscle (ribeye area) with the use of automated cutting devices, though they differ on sample thickness, details of the cut, and specifics of the cutting equipment. Different protocols exist for other muscle cuts. The tenderness standards that have been adopted by USDA are in keeping with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International tenderness standards.

In order for product to bear the new USDA-certified labeling claims of “tender” or “very tender” a firm or individual (packers being the most likely) must have tenderness testing technology put in place, conduct tests in accordance with ASTM, its protocols for either of the two tenderness measures, and with appropriately-trained personnel. Firms must have a testing procedure, equipment maintenance plans, and other operational plans available and in keeping with ASTM standards. All of these plans, as well as actual samples, will be open to random assessment by a third-party auditing entity designated by AMS’s Livestock, Poultry and Seed program.

Both industry and academic research has found that tenderness is usually the leading palatability feature important to consumers. Some accounts place it as many times more important than flavor or leanness.

Despite this, there is very little economic motivation to breed with tenderness in mind.

“One of the challenges is that, as a producer, I don’t get paid for tenderness,” said Susan Willmon, director of breed improvement at the American Gelbvieh Association.

While grid systems exist giving premiums for marbling or grade results which are heavily based on marbling, no such premium or incentive exists for tenderness. The grading system is generally intended to estimate tenderness, but research has indicated grades are a poor indication of both measureable and subjective tenderness as marbling plays a very small role in overall tenderness.

“Maybe this is the first step in potentially developing a grid for premiums on tenderness,” Willmon said of the new USDA standard.

Some efforts have been made to select for tenderness in breeding independent of marbling or to predict cooked-beef tenderness from assessments of raw beef. The Gelbvieh Association had a program called CUT—Carcass, Ultrasound and Tenderness—which included data on genetic markers for tenderness on the breed’s top 25 sires, but the program was not as well received as had been hoped. Pfizer Animal Genetics has the Gene- Star MVP (molecular value predictions) product which, among other things, reports on tenderness as measured by WBSF.

Another technology in assessing tenderness is visible and near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy. A checkoff-funded study in the recent past demonstrated that cooked-beef tenderness could be predicted from evaluations of raw beef. As this technology is non-invasive, it has been seen as a potential useful tool in determining individual cut tenderness. Pork producers are also looking to the technology for its potential uses in their industry.

The new standards governing the use of “tender” or “very tender” join the slim ranks of marketing watchwords actually backed by USDA definitions. Others include organic, natural, cage-free, free-range, and grass-fed. Other marketing claims such as “humane” and “pasture-raised” are not regulated by USDA and are thereby only included to entice customers on emotional grounds. —  Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor