For centuries, the bovine carcass has been separated with a “bone anatomical orientation.” This often resulted in meat cuts containing portions of several muscles with differing taste and tenderness attributes.
In the case of the chuck and round, modern consumers no longer are willing to spend the time to properly cook cuts from these primals. That presents a problem for the beef industry because the chuck and round constitute nearly two-thirds of the carcass by volume but less than 50% of the carcass by value.
In addition, when consumers complained about inconsistencies in flavor, tenderness and quality of cuts from the chuck and round, the dissatisfaction often was associated with inconsistencies in the makeup of the cuts themselves.
That left meat scientists looking for better way to break a carcass to derive more value. Then along came the extraction of the top blade, a tender and juicy muscle with relatively intense flavor that lies on top of the blade bone in the chuck. The slight amount of connective tissue that runs through this muscle usually isn't a major problem to the consumer.
In the U.S., the top blade quickly found uses in foodservice and retail as a steak item. This success led to the idea that there would be value in redefining how other cuts from these primals could be disassembled to produce the greatest value.
To find these new options, a muscle profiling study was designed to uncover new, higher-value marketing opportunities for the chuck and round. Achieving more value from these primals would benefit all beef industry sectors and provide consumers with new choices at the meat counter and in restaurants.
The meat profiling study described and catalogued the characteristics of 39 chuck and round muscles. Among the traits measured were fat content, color, pH, water-holding capacity, connective tissue content, bind capacity and tenderness.
The muscle profiling study was the result of beef checkoff-funded research conducted by the University of Florida (UF), the University of Nebraska and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). It produced a manual that identifies each muscle by location and summarizes its characteristics. The tool has been widely distributed in the U.S.
Now, the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) is working in conjunction with NCBA to roll out muscle profiling internationally. The first of several international editions — in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Russian — are currently undergoing review and will be available in these markets later this year.
Recently, during a four-day “train-the-trainer” session at the USMEF-operated Meat Education and Research Center (MERC) in Seoul, South Korea, one of the principal investigators in the original research also was one of the instructors. Dwain Johnson, a UF meat science professor, was able to roll out his work for the first time internationally from the manual he helped develop.
More than 30 Korean meat specialists — who also teach at the school — learned about the results of the muscle profiling research and discuss the implications to their retail and restaurant systems. More than 1,400 students have graduated from a variety of courses in the first 1½ years of MERC operations.
Korea is the third-largest market for U.S. beef and beef variety meats and is expected to import more than 125,000 metric tons this year. In January 2001, the Korean market was liberalized, which means market conditions, not government buying patterns, will drive the import market.
In addition, in September 2001, as the result of a finding by the World Trade Organization, Korean law was changed to allow for the handling and display of domestic and imported beef in the same area of the retail store or butcher shop. These actions have led to greater access to U.S. exporters and greater choice and value for Korean consumers.
Johnson says the experience was an education in finding new value in underutilized cuts for him as well. He notes that in the U.S., the brisket point is not a real desirable portion of the brisket and usually is sold at a discount.
“In Korea it has a much greater value and often is an expensive, featured specialty item. Perhaps it's better to merchandise the point here in Korea and the flat can stay in the U.S. for the brisket market,” he says.
Johnson says there are also portions of the chuck roll that are currently being ground in the states that can be sold as boneless short ribs with a really high value in Korea.
“It would be a really good way to upgrade those chuck rolls that we often have to get rid of at a discount at certain times of the year in our domestic market,” he says.
Johnson hopes other findings of the muscle profiling research can gain the acceptance of the top blade in Asian markets. The muscle is often thinly cut for use in the traditional Korean barbecue or hot pot dishes, and it is now being merchandised as a thicker “butterflied” steak.
The top blade is also becoming a popular item in the Shanghai, China, market. Instructors at the USMEF meat school in Shanghai teach students how to trim, cut, merchandise and prepare this cut in a number of traditional and non-traditional ways.
During a recent promotion at the Taiwan-owned RT-Mart in Shanghai, U.S. top blade and boneless short plate were popular featured items. At another hypermart, the German-owned Metro, U.S. top blade was featured as both a butterflied steak and a hot pot ingredient.
The first draft of the Korean version of the muscle profiling manual is being reviewed and evaluated at MERC. The school will roll out the research into the Korean market.
Lynn Heinze is vice president of information for the USMEF, a trade association responsible for developing international markets for the U.S. red meat industry. It's funded by USDA, exporting companies and the beef, pork, corn, sorghum and soybean checkoff programs.