TWIN FALLS, Idaho — There are a lot of good things happening in the beef industry when it comes to improving the quality of beef and producer profitability.
But producers can add more value to the carcass with better consistency and by balancing quality and carcass size, Phil Bass, associate professor of meat science at the University of Idaho, said during the university’s Idaho Range Livestock Symposium on Tuesday.
Bass joined the university in 2017 after several years as the senior meat scientist for the Certified Angus Beef brand — and he is passionate about beef.
His exuberance in talking about beef quality is enough to wear out a Fitbit in one presentation and cause venue staff to ask him to dial down the volume.
The first reason for his enthusiasm is that beef has earned its place as the celebratory protein. When good things happen, people say “let’s go get a steak.”
They don’t say “let’s go get a chicken breast,” he said.
“Market research continues to tell us taste is the No.1 reason” people eat beef, he said.
Taste is defined by palatability — flavor, tenderness and juiciness — and it all comes down to marbling. It’s the little flecks of intramuscular fat the “meat fairies” sprinkle into beef, he said.
Marbling is indicative of a good eating experience, and the fat not only tastes good but is the healthy type of fat, he said.
The amount of marbling constitutes the USDA quality grade, from which consumers can assess the potential eating experience. Of USDA’s eight grades, the beef industry is primarily concerned with “prime” at the top end followed by “choice” and “select.”
The good news is the industry is moving away from select — going from 48 percent of slaughter in 1995 to 24 percent in 2016. That’s putting more carcasses in the prime and choice grades, and prime is now running upwards of 8 percent of slaughter some weeks, he said.
“We’re seeing this huge movement toward high quality,” he said.
That’s possible due to higher-quality genetics, and it’s happening because consumers want higher-quality beef and are willing to pay for it, he said.
It’s all tied to marbling, and marbling is a product of both nature and nurture, he said.
“You have to start with an animal that has the potential to marble … and if you have the genetics, you need to raise them properly,” he said.
While the industry is improving marbling, there are challenges. Those include different levels of marbling within the choice grade, advanced physiological maturity and non-conforming or oversized carcasses.
With three levels of marbling within the choice grade, the industry is losing consistency. It’s harder to get consumer buy-in when the quality varies within the same grade, he said.
It means the consumer has a “consistently lower chance of having a quality eating experience,” he said.
The industry also needs to pay more attention to the physiological maturity of the animal. Lean muscle becomes darker, less visibly appealing and less tender as animals mature, he said.
Carcass size is another issue. Larger cattle produce advanced maturity of the carcass and problems for packers both in processing and merchandising, he said.
“Even though we can make them very big, we have to sell it at the end and it has to taste good, look good and go through the system,” he said.