High Stress Steaks

My whole life I have been very fortunate to have home-raised beef in my freezer.  It is not often that I have had to buy meat in the store, however, I do enjoy perusing the meat counter whenever I go grocery shopping to see what is available and how much it costs.  Recently, I was shopping with a fellow meat science grad student when something in the meat counter caught our eye. 

The picture on the left shows product that would be considered a
“dark cutter.”

This picture shows two very different appearing steaks.  The package on the right appears normal, being the typical bright cherry red color that we would expect to see.  The package on the left, however, is a much darker color.  

The condition of this product is known in the industry as being a “dark cutter.”  As the name implies, it produces a very dark, unappealing product.  It is caused by long term stress of the animal that can be influenced by genetics, environment, or management.

The simple explanation:  Stress causes muscles to tense.  When this happens all the energy in the muscles is used.  When the animal is harvested, there is no energy left in the system to produce lactic acid and cause the meat to have a drop in pH.  This leads to product that is darker in color, firm in texture due to holding water, and dry on the surface since all the moisture is held within the cut.  For a more scientific explanation, read on.  If this is enough, skip to the final paragraph.

To get scientific: muscle tissue stores energy in the form of glycogen.  When we use our muscles, that glycogen is converted to lactic acid. (Think about when you try a new workout and are often sore the next day.  This is due to a buildup of lactic acid in your muscles since you used the muscle’s energy.)  When an animal is stressed for a long period of time, it uses up the glycogen within the system and depletes the lactic acid. (Think about when you’re stressed.  Do you tense up? Do you clench your fists and your jaw?  Your muscles are working.  The same thing happens to livestock.) 

When an animal is harvested, a lot of things happen as muscle is converted to meat.  One of these things is a drop in pH.  Living muscle tissue is very neutral, with a pH of approximately 7.0; whereas beef has a pH of approximated 5.6 (making it more acidic than living muscle). The drop in pH is caused by all of the glycogen that is left in the system at harvest being converted to lactic acid.  If an animal has been stressed for a long period of time, there is no glycogen available in the system, and there won’t be any lactic acid to drop the pH.  This causes the meat to have a very dark color and bind water tightly, creating a dry, tacky surface.  This produces a product that is dark, firm and dry.

It is important to note, that this product is still safe to consume, but due to its high level of moisture, is often used in further processed products.  Dark cutting beef is only found in approximately 1-2% of harvested cattle, often following severe changes in harsh weather.  Producers do all they can to limit this occurrence by controlling the animal’s environment and stress level.  Housing animals indoors, providing shade in the summer if housed outdoors, consistent feeding times, treating sickness, these are just a few practices that producers use to help mitigate stress of the animal.  Animal care is a priority to producers and ensuring a safe, high quality product for consumers is their mission.


The Art and Science of Aging Beef

Have you ever seen the phrase “aged beef,” or “dry aged beef,” in a menu or on an add and wondered what it really means?  Aging is very important for tenderness development in beef.  It allows enzymes that are naturally found in the meat to be active and breakdown protein that leads to tenderness.  Beef can be aged for just a few days or up to a couple months before it is eaten.  Outside of tenderness, aging can also be used to help with flavor development.  Depending on how it is used, aging is not just an important science but an art.

There are two types of aging that used in the beef industry: wet aging and dry aging. 

Wet aging is storing large cuts of meat in a sealed, vacuum package bag under refrigerated temperatures, and is the most commonly used form of aging in the industry.  This method is great because the packaging inhibits cross contamination with other products, controls bacteria growth and retains the moisture from the product within the bag.  Since the product doesn’t dry out, there is very little waste once removed.  Once removed from the package, the product is further cut into steaks and roasts before being sold to the end consumer.

Dry aging is storing the product without packaging in open air.  This method allows for mold growth on the product as well high amounts of moisture loss.  Although this may sound unappealing, the mold growth allows for intense flavor development (example: one of the molds that is commonly associated with blue cheese can be found on dry aged meat, giving the meat a blue cheese like flavor).  Once the product is ready to be divided into retail cuts, the dried portion and mold is cut off and discarded. 

These are strip loins that were used for a research project in our lab this semester. The bright red loins were wet aged. Notice that they do not have the same “crust” like the others that would need to be removed before steaks are cut. The other loins were dry aged for 45 days.

Dry aging is really where the art and science meet.  Mold growth allows for flavor development, but also has the potential for unsafe organisms to develop.  Controlling temperature and airflow around the product is key to limit dangerous growth.  Keeping these factors in mind account for the science, but how about the art?  Dry aging has not been extensively studied, but has been done for ages.  From high end restaurants, to meat cellars, dry aging can be done in many different places and conditions.  Choosing the cut of meat to age, length of time of aging, temperature control, etc., each person doing the aging may have a different method to their madness.  It’s an incredible collaboration of meat science and culinary creativity.

Calcium and Beef?

Calcium and beef, not a combination that you hear paired together very often, but it is a very important combo!  Calcium is important in beef as it helps make the meat tender.  How does it do that you may ask?  Well let me tell you…

All muscle contains enzymes, called calpains, that breakdown protein and are activated by calcium.  These enzymes are important during life because they help remove any weak, or injured proteins in your muscles and let new, healthy protein be formed.  Think about exercising.  When you work out, your muscle fibers are injured and the protein that makes them up is damaged.  Calpains help get rid of those injured proteins and let new, healthy proteins take their place, helping your muscles gain strength.

Postmortem, when this muscle has been converted to meat, those calpains are still active.  The only difference is that meat no longer has energy available to rebuild the muscle.  Calpains are busy breaking apart the protein, without new protein being formed.  This continuous breakdown is what causes meat to be tender.  Think about eating a steak. Did your mouth just water at the thought?  If you have a whole steak and try to just take a big bite without first cutting it, it will probably be kind of tough to chew through.  Cutting the steak across the grain into bite-sized pieces makes it much more tender and easier to chew.  Calpains “cut” those fibers and break them down, leading to a more tender product.

Calcium is important because it is responsible for activating these enzymes.  Without calcium, there would be no need to age beef, because the enzymes responsible for tenderness wouldn’t be active.  The beef we consume would be much tougher than what we know it to be today.  It is so crazy to me that although beef isn’t known to be a good source of calcium in our diet, it still requires calcium to create a palatable product.

While at University of Idaho, my research has been focused on finding a method to improve beef tenderness by activating calpains earlier postmortem.  Basically, I am trying to find a way to make more calcium available to kick the enzymes into high gear!  This project has kept me busy in the lab the past few months, but it has been so fun and exciting to see the data pour in.  I am continually amazed at the amount of science that is involved in making a steak taste great, but it has been so much fun to be a part of the research!

Hormone Havoc

A few months ago, I met a woman on an airplane who was on her way to a yoga retreat.  After visiting for a while, I told her I was studying meat science.  She proceeded to ask lots of questions (as many people do, and I very warmly welcome).  We got on the topic of hormone usage in livestock.  She told me that she was worried that excess hormones in meat were causing her grandson to develop womanly features.

Hormone usage in livestock production is a common source of curiosity and insecurity of consumers that are not tied to the industry.  It is totally understandable.  If I didn’t grow up involved in the industry, I would question it as well.

Hormone implants are used in growing livestock (specifically, cattle) to help them be more efficient in converting feed to muscle.  Hormones are also known as repartitioning agents.  Meaning, they take the energy from the feed and rather than the animal accumulating excess fat, they use that energy to build muscle.  That muscle is what turns to meat after the animal has been harvested.

Implants are very small and administered in the form of a small pellet under the skin in the back of the calves’ ear.  This allows for slow release of the hormone, and since the ears are discarded, ensures that the pellet does not end up in human food production.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is active in ensuring that meat from animals implanted with hormones is safe to eat.  If it was a concern for human health, the practice would not be used and the meat would not be allowed on the market.

Now, some people ask, “do hormones used end up in the meat.”  It is important to note that every food has naturally occurring hormones.  Including beef.  My favorite example to compare this is beef vs. cabbage.

One, 3 oz. serving of implanted beef has approximately 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, (compared to 1.3 ng of non-implanted beef).

One serving of cabbage contains 2,000 nanograms of estrogen.

It would take 1,052 servings of beef to get the same amount of estrogen as 1 serving of cabbage.  That is 197 pounds.  The average American consumes approximately 57 pounds of beef per year.  Following those numbers, it would take 3.5 years to get the same amount of estrogen from beef as one serving of cabbage.

Image from a previous post written for South Dakota Farm Families, Farmer’s Daughter Segment.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat cabbage.  One nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.  One billionth.  That is trace amounts. I am a huge supporter of having a well-balanced diet, including beef and cabbage.  Yes, there are other hormones besides just estrogen used in beef production; however, similar examples as this can be found to demonstrate the trace amounts passed to food for human consumption.

There is so much regulation done to ensure safe, high quality food is making it into the hands of the consumer.  Whether that be beef, cabbage, or any other item you choose to purchase at the store. If hormone implants caused a food safety risk, let me assure you, it would not be a practice utilized by any producer.




The Science Behind a Steak

Did you know that every food and drink item that you can buy in a grocery store has been through various forms of scientific testing?  Whether it be for pathogens, allergens, microbial growth, flavor development, ingredient use, sensory appeal, the list goes on and on, there is a lot of science that goes into the food we eat!

The same goes for the products that you can purchase at the meat counter.  Now, when I say that there is science in your steak, I don’t mean that it has been chemically altered.  I mean that there has been significant testing put into place to help improve that piece of meat to provide a great eating experience and safe product for you and your family.  One of those tests is Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF).

Although a long name, WBSF is a simple concept.  Imagine biting into a big, juicy steak and having one of these two thoughts:

 “This is so tender, it just melts in my mouth,” or “This is so tough, I feel like I’m chewing on rubber!”

Sound familiar?  These two thoughts are describing the tenderness of the steak.  WBSF is a measurement of tenderness.  To complete this test, steaks are cooked and cores (basically bite sized pieces) are removed.  The cores are then cut with a machine that measures how many kilograms of pressure it takes to cut through the piece (the force it takes to shear the core, hence the name).  This represents how much pressure you would have to use to chew through the product.  The lower the WBSF value, the more tender the steak.  Using this information, we can find different things that can improve tenderness, whether that be a production method (think the animal’s environment it is raised in or what it is fed), a processing method (how long the product was aged, how the meat was cut, etc.) or cooking method (rare vs. well-done). 

WBSF is often used alongside taste panels. It is helpful to use WBSF as it gives a definite number without being influenced by personal preference.  However, taste panels are necessary because even if a machine tells us it should taste good, it’s people who need to enjoy it.

For those of you who are new to The Meating Room and haven’t read my bio, I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in meat science.  Last week, our lab group spent three days running WBSF analysis.  Three days, 230 steaks, 1,400+ cores to cut, all to try to find a method to improve steak tenderness and consistency for the end consumer. 

This is just a tiny fragment of the science that goes into producing great tasting steak.  As I continue with my project, I hope to share more of the work we are doing in the lab and to give you an insight into what a “meat scientist” really does!

I am an Animal Scientist.

It still amazes me sometimes that I am going to be an animal scientist.  When I started college, I wanted to be a banker.  I started off my education by pursuing a degree in agricultural business, and later added the animal science major because although I grew up on a farm, I wanted to have a better understanding of the whole industry.  The dual degree allowed me to take courses as vast as economics and agricultural marketing, to swine production and livestock nutrition.  It provided a broad view of the industry.

Now, as I pursue a master’s degree in meat science (formally a master’s in Animal Science), I can use that broad view to focus on specifics.  For example, understanding the combination of livestock genetics, nutrition and environment animals are raised in can help us make predictions as to what the characteristics of the meat will be.  Will this combination provide a lean product?  Will it be high quality (ex.  choice vs. prime)?  Will this animal produce a good eating experience for our consumers?

The past couple weeks, I have been able to attend two conferences that showcased research being done by animal scientists all over the country.  From meat science, to nutrition, to genetics, to reproduction, there is an incredible amount of research going on to help improve livestock production.  No matter what discipline the researchers are focused, we all have the same goal:  to discover ways to make livestock production more efficient and sustainable, to offer resources to producers to help produce the best product possible, and to improve production methods to best care for the livestock we raise. 

When people think of animal science, I am certain there are a lot of mixed reactions.  I certainly get an array of responses from people I talk to on airplanes!  Animal science is an incredible field and offers a vast array of opportunities.  I am so thankful that I made the decision to add animal science courses to my undergraduate degree.  I never could have predicted the opportunities it would bring or the direction it would lead, but I am certainly excited to see where it goes!

Meatless Monday

Recently, a private University in my home state of South Dakota  announced that they will be implementing a “Meatless Monday” program.  This is supported by their claims that plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat and that meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.  I’d like to take a little time today to talk about these two points and see how they really add up.

Plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat.

The South Dakota Beef Industry Council shares this graphic and I think it is really eye opening.  I’ll admit that it is easy to assume that plant -based proteins will offer more protein per calorie than meat.  But in all reality, when looking at the quantity of these products that need to be consumed to reach the protein level provided by one serving of beef, we quickly see that it is not the case. 

Per 25 g protein:

Quinoa: 666 calories

Peanut butter: 613 calories

Beef: 173 calories

In addition to being low calorie, that one serving of beef provides 10 essential nutrients- Protein, Iron, Choline, Selenium, Vitamin B, Zinc, Phosphorus, Niacin, Riboflavin.  It offers an incredible amount of nutritive value!  

Meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.

In addition to an animal science degree, I also received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.  The business side of me always perks up when I hear claims of ‘more expensive’.  It is time to crunch some numbers.

I have heard a lot of talk recently about the Beyond Burger, so I thought that would be a great example to look at.  When initially comparing the Beyond Burger pricing vs. the ground beef patties, it appears to be less expensive.  However, looking further we see that on a per pound basis, the Beyond Beef patties are almost twice the price of both ground beef patties (the difference in the patties is the fat content.  80% lean vs. 93% lean.  The 93% lean is more expensive on a per pound basis because it has a lower fat content).   Don’t let the face value of a product lead you astray.  It is important to judge actual economic value of a product not on the simple  dollar value it receives, but price per pound basis.  It is amazing how much of a difference that can make!

Image and Price from Walmart.com

One other thing that I think is interesting to point out about the Beyond Burger is the ingredient list.  Consumers continually demand a high quality product with a clean label. Looking at the Beyond Burger ingredient list we see that it contains over 15 ingredients! 

“Water, pea protein isolate*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, contains 1% or less: apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, beet juice extract, pomegranate fruit powder, lycopene color (from tomato).”

Now let’s compare that ingredient list to that of the ground beef patties:

“Ground Beef and Natural Flavorings.”

Two ingredients!  That’s it!  The Food Safety Inspection Service allows spices and seasonings such as black pepper, onion powder, and garlic to be defined as natural flavorings.  It is a simple product that offers so much to the consumer. 

Simply put, animal based proteins are a relatively low calorie, low cost option that are supported by a clean label. Protein takes up a large portion of the grocery budget.  We all want to feed our families a high quality product.  When thinking about it in that sense, meat offers the most bang for your buck. For that reason,  I plan to keep meat in my diet on Mondays, and every other day of the week!

Head Above Water

Do you ever have days where you feel like there is so much going on that you are struggling just to keep your head above water?  Maybe it’s more than just a day, maybe it seems more like a week or a month!  The past few weeks have been that way for me.  I have been so busy with travel and research that it seems like I’ve just been fighting to stay on top of all my responsibilities.  Now that I am back in Moscow for a few weeks it is a good time to reflect back on all that has been happening.

Following the judging contest we took in a few sights of Chicago.

Chicago, IL:  This was quite the trip.  I chaperoned five undergraduate students to the Meat Animal Evaluation Contest at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois.  The students participated in live animal evaluation, where they looked at breeding animals (those that will be used to produce offspring.  It is ideal for animals to have good genetics, bone structure, and size to be able to carry offspring.), market animals (hogs, cattle and sheep that are going to be harvested.  Ideally, these animals have a lot of muscle and adequate fat), and meats (carcasses were evaluated for yield and quality, and retail cuts, ie. steaks/porkchops, were ranked).  It was a great opportunity for our students to be able to compete in this contest and for me to be able to lead them!  Following the contest, we spent a little time in Chicago living the tourist lifestyle.   

Anacortes, WA:  The last weekend in March, I went to the Northwest Meat Processors Association convention.  This conference hosted local meat processors from across Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, who were able to bring their best products to be entered into a contest.  That’s right, a contest of bacon, ham, jerky, sausage, salami and more!  I was lucky enough to get to help judge the fresh sausages (I tried over 40 different kinds!).  It was such a fun experience to be able to see all the hard work and pride that the processors put into their products. 

The meat science grad students from the University of Idaho after an awesome tour of Del Fox Meats at the Meat Processors Association Convention.

Boise, ID:  My final trip took me to Boise for a food safety training.   Hazard Analysis, Critical Control Points (HACCP) training taught me how to look for potential problems in a meat processing facility and how to mitigate those issues.  We are specifically concerned with physical (bone chips), chemical (cleaning products) and biological (Salmonella) hazards.  Every meat processing plant has to have a HACCP plan in place where they go through every step of the production process, identify any hazards that could potentially occur, and establish a plan on how to monitor those hazards and ensure that safe food is making it to the consumer. 

On top of travelling, we have been busy with research.  The PhD student that I work with is wrapping up her project.  For her work we had to measure pH and temperature on carcasses and often had to do checks throughout the night.  Waking up at 3 am to go into a cooler isn’t always fun, but I have made some great memories working on this project!

Busy, busy, busy.  It is so easy when we are in a busy season to wish time away.  “If I just get through this trip, then I can get to the next one and then I can get a break.”  It’s easy to get worn out and forget how great of an opportunity some of these experiences are.  Looking back at the past few weeks it amazes me the experiences that I have gotten to take in and the people I have met.  I’m very thankful to have all these opportunities, but I’m also thankful to be back in Moscow and have some time to catch up on things before the next busy season approaches!

Calving Season

The story of a steak begins long before it finds your plate.  In fact, for this story to begin, we must rewind over two years from when you purchased that steak, to baby making season…

Farmers make careful genetic decisions to improve their herd and the quality of meat that the animals produce.  There are numbers called Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), that help producers predict how specific traits will be passed down to future generations of livestock.  Think of these numbers like batting averages.  That number helps you predict how your favorite player will hit and gets more accurate every time he is up to the plate.  EPDs work the same way; helping producers make decisions with their accuracy improving with the more offspring an animal has. EPDs are often used if a farmer is buying a bull or choosing one to use for artificial insemination.   These predictions can be specific for birthweight, ribeye area, marbling ability, and much more.

Natural breeding is common to the beef industry, but many operations incorporate artificial insemination into their program. Artificial insemination (AI) is an incredible technology that producers can use to help improve their herd genetics.  To use AI, semen is collected from the male, frozen and can then be shipped all over the world (In fact, when I visited a farm in China, they were using semen from a bull owned by a farmer I know in South Dakota!).  AI can be a relatively low-cost option to farmers to purchase limited quantities of semen, rather than making a large investment in a bull.  AI can be very successful for many operations and allow for specific breeding choices to be made, improving livestock quality.  

So now that the cows are bred, they need to be taken care of in terms of nutrition, health and environment to ensure a healthy calf is born.  Working with nutritionists and veterinarians help ensure that the cows are getting the nutrients that they need and are cared for. 

Then, about 283 days later…. it’s baby time!  Calves are born and a whole new round of excitement begins.  It’s calving season right now, and many farmers and ranchers are keeping busy. This winter has been hard on a lot of producers and livestock.  Farmers check on the livestock day and night to ensure new calves can be dried off and warmed up.

When a calf is born, it is important for them to be able to stand up and eat.  The first milk that they receive from their mama’s is colostrum.  Colostrum contains antibodies and nutrients that are passed on to the offspring.  This first meal is vital for future health of the animal. 

It is important to care for the calves during this time, but it is also necessary to keep a close eye on the cows.  The cows need to be fed a good diet that provides them enough energy to maintain themselves, as well as helping their calf grow strong and healthy.

This is just the beginning of the story of how meat makes it to your kitchen table.  Simply having a calf turns into a big process and requires so much time and hard work; from selecting a bull, to breeding, to keeping the cow healthy, to calving.  But all that hard work pays off knowing that it is the first step in providing a high quality product for consumers.  

The Journey to Your Table

Do you ever look down at the food that you’re having for supper and think about all the people that had to go to work to provide that meal for you?  I do, and it absolutely amazes me. Just think:

Your plate.

The grocery store.

The meat counter.

Truckers to get it from the packing plant to the store.

Packing plant workers.


USDA Inspectors, veterinarians, livestock nutritionists, meat scientists, extension agents, feed salesmen…the list goes on and on.  The meat industry in the United States directly employs over 525,000 people and indirectly employs 6.2 million people (those who are not working directly with meat but still play a role in producing the product).  All of those people are devoted to producing a safe, nutritious, high quality product for you to serve to your family.

When I was younger I used to go to church camp in the summer.  Before meals, we would pray and then do a short, group song.  One of them that always stuck with me was as follows:

                “Back of the bread is the flour,

                And back of the flour is the mill,

                And back of the mill is the sun, and the rain, and the maker’s will.”

This rhyme has always stuck with me and makes me appreciate all that goes into the food we eat. 

Growing up on a farm I just thought of it as my family raised the livestock, a local butcher harvested the animals, we picked up the meat and our freezer was full.  I never really realized how great of a blessing that was.  Now that I am living 1200+ miles away from our farm it isn’t quite so simple.  During my studies I have been able to tour multiple packing plants and visit with people employed in the meat department at various grocery stores.  It is so cool to see the care and passion that goes into producing a high-quality product all the way from the farm, to the packing house, to the grocery store and to your kitchen table.  In the following weeks I will break this down into the different phases of meat production and talk about specific practices that are done at each step to ensure a safe product ends up on your kitchen table.

So next time you celebrate a birthday with a steak, or eat a hotdog at your child’s baseball game, take a minute and think about all the hands that had to play a role to provide that meal for you.  I think you’ll appreciate every bite just a little bit more.