• Wednesday, December 7, 2016

    What's in a food label? Where is the Angus?

    To continue my blog series on What’s in a Food Label? I thought I would talk about ANGUS. Angus is one of the most popular claims you’ll see on beef, both at the store and at restaurants.

    Angus is a breed of cattle. Just like dogs, cats, and horses, cattle have breeds, and one of the most famous and most popular breeds of beef cattle is the Angus breed. (Side note: a cowboy at the NFR right now is sponsored by the Angus breed. That cowboy is from my hometown!)
    These are come Angus-cross steers on one of our
     research projects at the University of Arkansas.

    Angus cattle originated in the Northeastern region of Scotland. They were black (although a few red ones pop up every now and then) and polled, meaning that they naturally do not grow horns. For years, farmers chose the Angus cows and bulls that produced the best beef, and now the breed is known for its high quality carcasses. Today, beef from Angus and Angus cross cattle are known for their high marbling and good eating quality. 

    Certified Angus Beef. In the 1970’s the Angus Association took a big leap to market their cattle and started Certified Angus Beef.  Certified Angus Beef is a USDA Certified Program which means that the company (CAB) sets the requirements that beef must meet to qualify for their program, but USDA graders certify that all the criteria are met and literally give it a stamp of approval.

    For Certified Angus Beef, those criteria include:
    ·        A minimum marbling score of Modest or higher (meaning it is at least Average Choice)
    ·        A ribeye area of 10.0 to 16.0 square inches
    ·        Less than 1.0 inch of fat thickness
    ·        A carcass weight of less than 1050 pounds

    These are not the only requirements. The cattle must also be of Angus influence which can be shown through their genotype and traced to their parents. Or, more commonly, the cattle must be at predominantly (51%) solid black, and they may not display certain non-Angus characteristics like dairy-type or Brahman humps.

    That means that CAB cattle are not 100% Angus. However, Angus are the only major beef breed of cattle that were originally black, so if a calf is 51% black and meets all the other requirements of CAB, chances are, it has some Angus in its pedigree.

    Other Angus. We see Angus on lots of packages and products that are not Certified Angus Beef. In fact, there are 109 USDA Certified Beef Programs and 71 of them use the word ‘Angus’ in their name. All of them have different criteria for beef quality. Some are high quality programs like CAB, whereas others are for lower quality beef (Select, Commercial, and Utility).

    Additionally, there are several Angus claims on packages and menus that are not USDA Certified Programs, but remember that USDA must approve claims on meat labels, and that includes claims about breed, such as Angus.

    On a personal note, we raise a few Angus cattle. One of my favorite bulls is an Angus named Moses. Several of our Simmental (another beef breed) cows are black, which means that there is an Angus somewhere in their pedigree. That is actually the case for lots of cattle. Because of CAB and the rise in Angus marketing, farmers have selected for cattle with black hides because they can be sold at a premium. In the past couple of decades the number of black cattle going to harvest has risen substantially.

    This is our daughter showing her
    Red Angus calf, Milly. 
    Red Angus. Yes. The Angus cattle carry a recessive gene that causes some of their calves to be red. A whole new breed of cattle has risen from those cattle known as Red Angus. We have a few Red Angus cattle, too.

    One of my favorite Jack-In-The-Box commercials is the one where Jack explains to all of “those of you NOT from Texas” where on the cow the sirloin beef comes for his new Sirloin Burgers. At the end of the commercial, one of the employees says that their competitors are advertising an Angus Burger and asks Jack to point out the Angus part of the cow. Jack looks to the floor and says, “I’d rather not.” So Funny.

    Thursday, July 14, 2016

    Aging Beef

    When you go to a fancy restaurant, you may hear that their beef is "aged." Sometimes they may say that it is dry aged or wet aged. They may tell you it was aged for 14 or 21 days, maybe more.

    But, what does that mean?

    Aging beef has nothing to do with how old the animal was. When beef is aged, it is stored in refrigeration for a set amount of time. The beef is typically not frozen, just refrigerated (29 to 34°F).


    Aging beef makes it more tender.

    The protein in an animal’s body is constantly turning over; breaking down and being built back up. One set of enzymes break down the protein and another mechanism builds it. Even after the animal is harvested, those breaking-down enzymes are still active, continuing to work until they are broken down or the meat is frozen or cooked. If meat is stored in refrigerated temperatures, those enzymes will break down the muscle and continue to make it more tender for 4 or 5 weeks, even longer.

    Sometimes, the whole carcass is held in refrigeration, but that requires a lot of space and energy. Cuts used for pot-roasts and ground beef typically don’t benefit from aging. So, most of the time, the beef is cut into different parts and pieces, and the tender ones (ribeyes, strip steaks, T-bones, sirloins) are aged, while the tougher cuts are sent directly to market.

    Wet or dry aging.

    Wet aging - After the beef is cut, the middle meats (ribeyes, strip steaks, T-bones, filets, and sirloins) are packaged in plastic bags and vacuum-sealed. Vacuum packaging protects the beef from bacteria and from oxygen that can cause it to spoil. The beef can be stored in a vacuum package under refrigerated temperatures for 4 to 6 weeks.  

    We use the term ‘wet aging’ because the beef is aged in its own juices, not because additional water is added. If you hear that beef is aged without being specified wet or dry, chances are, it was wet aged.

    Beef in a dry-aging cabinet in a grocery store in Texas. 
    You can see how the edges have dried and darkened.
    Dry aging – Rather than storing the beef in vacuum packages, dry-aged beef is aged without packaging in a specialized cooler or cabinet. The temperature and humidity are closely controlled. It is usually a dark room or lit with special UV lights that help control microbial growth. After the aging period, the processor must trim the edges off the cuts because they have dried out or perhaps even growth a little harmless mold (like some cheeses grow mold). This trimming and the evaporation during the aging process cause the beef to lose weight during dry aging, thus increasing the cost.

    A rib in a dry-aging bag. This was sent
    to me by a friend who was worried
    about the dark coloration and mold.
    I told them to just trim it off.

    Some companies sell special bags that can be used to dry-age beef. They protect the beef from some moisture loss and microbial growth. Some people like to use them to dry age beef cuts at home.

    Originally beef was dry-aged as whole carcasses, then with the development of plastics, vacuum bags were used for aging. They cut down on moisture loss and the conditions for aging were easier to control. Now some restaurants and stores provide beef dry-aged in specialized rooms, cabinets, or in bags at a premium price.

    Can you taste the difference? Wet aged beef has a more acidic, more rare flavor, whereas dry aged beef has a more brown-roasted, well done flavor. Both will be tender and juicy. I think it’s a personal preference.

    Does it matter what grade it isAging will benefit any grade of young beef. It doesn't matter if it is Select, Choice or Prime, it will tenderize with aging. Very lean cuts and Select cuts are more prone to developing off flavors when they are aged for a very long time (longer than 4 weeks). 

    Does the animal's age matter to aging? Beef from older cattle will age some, but not as well. The toughness of older cattle is more due to connective tissue and it is not largely affected by aging. Tenderizing cuts from older animals usually takes plant enzymes like those from pineapple or figs.

    That’s aging. It’s pretty simple. If you have any questions, just let me know.

    Tuesday, June 7, 2016

    The antibiotic age

    Last month, I attended the Alltech ONE ideas conference. Alltech is a global company that produces lots of different products that may be used in many segments of agriculture. Every year, they host a group of bloggers to their conference and ask us to write about what we learned. This was my fourth year to attend, and I would love for you to see what I’ve learned at previous Alltech conferences.

    This year, several of the sessions I attended covered the topic of antibiotics. Alltech is a forward-thinking company that is working to reduce the use of antibiotics in food production. They offer feed supplements that farmers can use to keep their animals healthy and productive rather than using antibiotics.

    There were also several discussions about sustainable energy and the use of fossil fuels. During one of those discussions, the speaker, Ramez Naam, shared a quote from a former oil minister of Saudi Arabia.

    He said, “The stone age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.”

    That discussion was about oil and energy, but I think that the premise can be applied to antibiotics.

    Agriculture has changed a great deal in the past 6 decades. Our population is growing at a staggering rate, and farmers have had to adapt to meet the demands for food in our world. Getting to this point in agriculture has taken lots of tools and one of those tools has been and still is antibiotics.

    I have written about antibiotics before. People have trouble understanding the use of antibiotics in food production; the fact that some bacteria adapt to become resistant to them, and that farmers use antibiotics to help keep their animals healthy and are careful to treat their animals in such a way that antibiotic residues don’t end up in our meat. Farmers and consumers have concerns about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and, in food production, antibiotics are at the front of everyone’s mind.

    We have to remember that the Stone Age didn’t end overnight. People slowly figured out new and more efficient ways of doing things. They found new materials and new ways to use old materials. Then, their ideas spread around the world.

    We can’t expect the use of antibiotics to end overnight either, but things are happening quickly. Farmers are using a whole-systems approach to improve animal health. Meanwhile, animal scientists are figuring out new ways to help farmers produce healthier animals without the use of antibiotics or with a vastly reduced use of antibiotics.

    At the conference, Dr. Aiden Connolly, talked about several ways that animals may be managed to help reduce or eliminate the use of antibiotics.

    Genetics: Everyone has that friend who never gets sick. The same happens in the animal world. Some animals are just better at fighting disease on their own. Now, we have the ability to find those specific genes in animals and select for them. By breeding the healthiest females to the healthiest males, and eliminating the more sickly ones, fewer animals will get sick and fewer will need antibiotics.

    Biosecurity – health management: In a previous post about antibiotics, I jokingly mentioned that you can’t teach pigs to wash their hooves, but we can manage the humans and the equipment going in and out of farms to keep disease from spreading.

    In April, I went to two pig farms in one day, and I took four showers that day. On modern swine and sometimes poultry farms, humans are required to shower in and shower out. That means you take a shower, and only wear clothes that belong to the farm. Even underwear (TMI, sorry). Other precautions included washing the vehicles that we drove every time we entered a new farm, keeping wildlife away, and limiting visitors.

    Sanitation and reduced contamination will reduce the exposure of animals to bacteria that cause disease, and will reduce the need to treat those animals with antibiotics.

    Nutrition: Keeping animals well-fed and healthy will help their bodies naturally fight disease. Scientists are also learning how to create an environment in the animal that promotes health and fights bacteria without antibiotics.

    Gut health and the Microbiome: Last year I wrote a post about the human microbiome, but animals each have their own microbiome. Dr. Stephen Collett, from the University of Georgia, spoke at the conference and he said that when we choose animals for breeding, we are not only selecting their genetics, but also their microbiome. Mothers pass their healthy bacteria to their babies, and all animals share it in their barns, pens, and fields.

    The interactive effect of a healthy gut and nutrition is so important. Farmers are learning to feed the good bacteria to fight the bad ones. Dr. Collett said, “We can’t win the war on disease by killing, we have to win by multiplying. We have to nurture what we want.” Using nutrition to feed the healthy bacteria will lessen the need for antibiotics to fight the bad bacteria.

    The day after the conference, I watched a webinar by some animal scientists from Texas A&M. They spoke about bacteriophages, viruses that kill specific bacteria. They exist everywhere in nature. Some animals naturally carry them in their guts to help them fight bacteria that might make them sick. Obviously, bacteriophages are part of the microbiome. Scientists are learning more about them and how they can help fight bacteria every day. 

    Keep moving forward.

    Farmers and scientists are adapting every day to how we fight disease and pathogens in food animals. With every new break through, we have another tool in our toolbox to fight dangerous bacteria. One of the exciting things about working in the food industry is that it is constantly changing.

    There is no way our industry is ready to completely stop using antibiotics, but we are finding ways to use fewer antibiotics all the time. The whole industry will continue to keep moving forward to a new age of total animal health. 

    The founder and CEO of Alltech, Dr. Pearse Lyons, has a great quote that I think can be applied to the transition away from antibiotics, “Don’t get it right. Get it going.” Changing the tools we use to produce food for 9 billion people is not going to be easy, but we have to keep moving forward. Get it going.

    Friday, April 29, 2016

    Beef Quality Grading

    What does ‘Quality’ mean to you?

    Quality can mean lots of things. In regards to meat, some people may equate it with freshness or wholesomeness. Others may think the word ‘Quality’ indicates nutritional quality, in that a certain food is good for you. Still others may think ‘Quality’ means it tastes good, meaning that high quality meat it is tender, juicy, and full of flavor. All of these are true.

    However, in the beef industry when we talk about Quality grading, we are talking about terms like Prime and Choice, and those terms help us know how tender, juicy, and flavorful a beef cut may be based on the age of the animal and the amount of marbling (the little flecks of fat found within the muscles in a cut of beef). These grades are used to help farmers and meat packers market their animals based on an indicator of eating satisfaction. Keep in mind that grading is different from Inspection, which determines whether or not the meat is safe and wholesome, and grading is voluntary whereas inspection is required.

    At the turn of the 20th century, someone in the USDA decided that farmers and meat producers needed a consistent way to determine if one beef carcass was superior to another, so they began to work on ways to differentiate carcasses based on their eating satisfaction. There is a very detailed history of meat grading on the Texas A&M meat science website.

    How are cattle graded?

    Today, cattle are graded in beef processing plants by USDA employees whose services are paid for by the beef packing companies. In some plants, grades are applied with the help of cameras and computers.

    I am not a USDA grader, but I can estimate
    grades. Here, I am grading some carcasses
    for a small processor. You can see how the
    carcass is cut for the grader to evaluate it.
    First, the grader determines if the cattle are young. They look at specific bones along their backbone to make this call. A very large percentage of the cattle that are graded by USDA graders are young. Because the beef from older cattle can be significantly tougher, they are graded differently. It can get pretty complicated, but if it REALLY interests you, check it out on the Texas A&M meat science webpage.

    Next, the grader looks at the marbling. That’s the important part. Each carcass will be cut so the USDA grader can look at the ribeye muscle at the 12th rib. They compare the marbling in each ribeye to the marbling in a set of standardized cards to determine the Quality grade. The graders give the carcasses marbling scores that match up with the USDA quality grade.

    What do the different grades mean?

    USDA Prime.
    Prime, the highest grade classification, has the greatest amount of marbling (an Abundant, Moderately Abundant or Slightly Abundant marbling score). Only about 4% of carcasses will grade Prime. These cuts are sold in expensive restaurants and fancy hotels because they are the most tender and juicy.

    USDA Choice
    Carcasses that qualify for Choice are considered high quality, and having a high percentage of beef that grade Choice has always been a goal of cattle producers. Today, about 2/3 of the beef carcasses graded in the US qualify for Choice. All of the quality grades are divided into high, average and low, but within Choice, those divisions are priced and marketed separately.

    Upper 2/3 Choice
    Carcasses from the top two divisions in the Choice grade will often qualify for one of many USDA Certified programs, such as Certified Angus Beef, Sterling Silver Beef, or Chairman’s Reserve. These marketing programs incorporate quality grade with other carcass standards to set themselves apart. Having more marbling than low Choice beef (Modest or Moderate marbling scores), these cuts are very tender and juicy and are often found in nice restaurants and fancy grocery stores.

    Low Choice
    When beef is labeled as USDA Choice, it is mostly likely low Choice beef. Still high quality cuts, low Choice is found in many stores and restaurants. They have less marbling (a Small marbling score) and are less expensive, but can still be tender and juicy if prepared correctly.

    USDA Select
    Cuts that qualify for the Select grade have less marbling than Choice (a Slight marbling score), but these cuts are lean and full of protein. The Select grade is very uniform and these cuts can be quite tender, juicy and flavorful, especially if braised or prepared with marinades and cooked to lower degrees of doneness (medium rare). They are the least expensive of the grades we have discussed.

    There are other grade classifications for carcasses that don’t have enough marbling to even grade Select (USDA Standard) or carcasses from older animals (USDA Commercial and Utility). You probably won’t see those advertised in a store or a restaurant. There is also a whole different type of grading (Yield grading) that evaluates the percentage of edible beef each carcass will produce based on how much muscle and fat is in it, but those grades are largely used within the industry for pricing, and not really marketed to consumers.  

    Quality grades are not perfect indicators of beef tenderness. You may still find tough steaks that were graded Prime, and you can probably find tender ones that were graded Select. Meat scientists are always working on ways to improve our ability to predict tenderness. (That was actually my Master’s project.)

    Hopefully, the next time you go to the store or to a fancy steak restaurant, you’ll have a better understanding of what these USDA Quality Grades mean. Please let me know if you have any questions.