Part 3: Research at base of virtually every checkoff program

Study. Inquire. Examine. Scrutinize. Repeat. Study. Inquire. Examine OK, you get the picture. By its fundamental definition, it's called RESEARCH, and cattle producers and importers nationwide have been investing their beef checkoff dollars into studying, inquiring, examining and scrutinizing for 25 years now. ‘I understand that research is important,' some will say. ‘But why don't we ever see results?' To that, we say, ‘Oh, but you do, even if you look only out into your back pasture.' By the very fact that you remain part of a thriving beef industry, you can ‘see' those results every day. In fact, if you look closer, you might see that some of the research projects that your checkoff has completed to date likely have helped save the industry more than once from possible demise, often brought on by beef information previously based on assumption, rumor, propaganda, and non-scientific ‘studies.' Beef checkoff research is about improving how the industry converts cattle into the tender, juicy, flavorful beef that leaves consumers wanting more. When you hear the phrase "It's not your father's steak anymore," it might be truer than you think. And that's not to say that your father's steak wasn't delicious and maybe even nutritious, but that's very much the result of what we've learned from research of every shape and size. In a nutshell, here it is: Few would argue that the beef industry would be in deep trouble if not for research that improved knowledge about things like pathogens to improve beef safety; techniques incorporated into beef quality assurance to teach cattle producers to raise leaner, healthier beef. Of course, you need market research to learn exactly what consumers want from beef and the market trends that will affect delivery of your product; and that leads to on-the-ground product enhancement and new-product development research that makes it possible for this industry to adjust those beef and beef products to meet constantly changing demands.

Who benefits? ‘OK, so we need research, but why do producers pay into research that helps only the manufacturers and retailers, and doesn't trickle down to our farms and ranches?' Think about it this way: If we didn't have the information and technology that we need to help manufacturers meet retailers demands and techniques and materials to help retailers meet consumer demands for your products, how much would that carcass be worth? And don't be fooled to believe that retailers have to sell beef. They have plenty of proteins to choose from and will market whatever responds best to their customers' demands. In other words, if your beef doesn't get to the meat case in a way attractive to consumers, they'll walk past to the pork or chicken section in a heartbeat. The consumers are the ones in control, all the way to the bank. And consumers aren't shy. They spoke their minds – and their pocketbooks – loudly and clearly back in the 1970s and 80s, when the word above the fold was that beef wasn't good for you and had too much fat. It didn't matter how accurate nutrition information was or was not. It only mattered what consumers heard, believed, and subsequently feared. So how did the checkoff's research program step in and help stop downward spiraling demand amid some of the frightening headlines of the 1970s and 80s and the beef boycott of 1973 and then transform the industry to one boasting steady demand and some of the headlines we're seeing today, like this one seen last month: "Good news for environmentally conscious foodies – beef is lean and 'green.'"?

Top Research Accomplishments Over its 25-year history, your beef checkoff has amassed a long list of research accomplishments that deserve attention and some credit for this progress, but we'll highlight a few of them here to give you an idea of what you're getting for your dollar-per-head:

Though checkoff programs are deeply intertwined and feed off of each other, many have called Muscle Profiling Research the single most effective and far-reaching effort that the checkoff has undertaken to date. Amidst a growing trend to separate muscles out of the carcass to market them individually and a trend in restaurants and grocery stores to sell more boneless beef, the checkoff undertook Muscle Profiling Research in the late 1990s. In responding to these trends, the goal was also to increase the declining value of the beef chuck and round (about 69 percent of carcass) in comparison to middle meats like the rib and loin (about 29 percent of carcass), and the effects were nothing short of ground-breaking.

In collaboration with the University of Nebraska and the University of Florida, this in-depth research evaluated 144 chucks and rounds, involving 39 muscles per carcass, for a total of 5,616 muscles. The research included analysis of fat and moisture, color, pigment concentration, connective tissue, pH, water holding capacity, bind and muscle fiber type. The result was identification of "diamonds in the rough" and subsequent creation of a number of new steaks from individual muscles that previously were overlooked but ended up performing well as individual steaks. Two of these "Beef Value Cuts" first launched into the market in 2002 were the Petite Tender and the Flat Iron steak, a cut that has been touted as having the "tenderness of tenderloin and the taste of a sirloin." That's a tough combination to beat – and before muscle profiling, that part of the carcass was usually turned into ground beef! In its first five years on the market, the Flat Iron reached annual foodservice sales of 90 million pounds a year, and the Petite Tender sold 47 million pounds in 2007. During the same period, the number of retailers offering Value Cuts increased from 321 to nearly 10,000. Since then, sales of value cuts have continued to grow, with the Flat Iron becoming one of the most popular steaks worldwide. Meanwhile, the checkoff program continues to increase the value of the carcass through similar research, including cow muscle profiling and further discoveries in the round, as well as in the veal carcass. For a close-up look at the science behind muscle profiling, including fabrication videos and cross-sections, go to Bovine Myology.

Since 1993, the Beef Checkoff Program has invested more than $28 million on beef safety research, outreach and education. When added to private industry investments, the beef industry spends more than $350 million annually on research to maintain one of the safest beef supplies in the world.

A key effort in that research focuses on reducing the incidence of E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in beef products. An E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef in 1993 was the impetus for the industry's strategic focus on methods to control this pathogen. Through development of management strategies and intervention tools – like animal cleaning, chemical dehairing at slaughter; spot-cleaning through knife-trimming or steam/hot water vacuuming; and spraying of carcasses before chilling – the beef industry has been cited as a model for other commodities when it comes addressing food safety challenges. But this proactive approach earns its true dividends by dramatically reducing the number of foodborne illnesses due to E. coli O157:H7. In fact, during the first five years the checkoff participated in this research, the human incidence of E. coli 0157:H7 dropped 80 percent. For more on this topic, visit Beef Safety.

Instrument Grading is another top success of your research investments. Everyone who buys beef – from individual consumers to retailers to all walks of foodservice buyers – has come to depend on the official USDA beef grades of Prime, Choice and Select as symbols of quality. But imagine being a federal meat grader on the line in a packing plant and having less than 15 seconds to assign a yield and carcass grade to each passing carcass. Certainly, your consistency and accuracy are more than a little hampered by that limited visual review, even if you are an expert who's been on the job for decades.

Knowing there had to be a better way, the Beef Checkoff Program served as a catalyst for action and has invested more than $2.5 million collaborating with USDA, beef processors, cattle producers, technology providers and academia toward improving the consistency and accuracy of grade and factor assessment. The result was approval by USDA and widespread use of instrument grading tools that help determining the official quality and yield grades and in evaluating factors for certified branded beef programs. The technologies include things like video image analysis (VIA), first approved by USDA in 2005, followed by marbling assessment by VIA in 2006. After proving to be valuable tools for assessing carcasses accurately and consistently, USDA established standards for use of VIA technologies in its grading procedures, kicking off the true transition to instrument grading nationwide. Current checkoff funding in this arena is being used to implement existing technologies for evaluating quality grade and investigating technologies for predicting beef tenderness. For details, visit Instrument Grading. The checkoff's list of research successes includes a host of other programs, among them participation in the Beef Industry Food Safety Council (BIFSCo), which brings together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to develop industrywide, science-based strategies to solve the problem of E. coli O157:H7 and other foodborne pathogens in beef. Also on the list is nutrition research that proves beef to be one of the most naturally nutrient-rich foods, with a package of nutrients that includes protein, iron, zinc and many B vitamins, that work uniquely together to contribute to good health. And beef still grabs King-of-the-Plate status for its tremendous taste and nutritional qualities. Repeat.... Study. Inquire. Examine. Scrutinize. Up next week, in Part 4 of this series, is checkoff-funded CONSUMER INFORMATION programs.