Branded Beef - superior product quality or credence attributes?

Branded Beef - superior product quality or credence attributes?
by Dr. Susan Markus, Ph.D, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development - 9, 2009

If you eat or market beef you'll know that consumers value tenderness along with other meat quality attributes like flavour, juiciness, color and fat content. However, without any "out of the lab" guarantees to tenderness we have come to rely on marbling as our best indicator of a favorable eating experience. While marbling does have an impact on juiciness and flavour, research shows it is only poorly related to tenderness. Tenderness is a complex attribute affected by genetics, management systems, feeding and handling, but probably more so by the post-mortem aging period, processing and chilling procedures after slaughter and ultimately cooking method.

So, what is a cattle producer to do? Tenderness seems to be out of your control once the cattle step off the truck. Recent research conducted by Dr. Susan Markus with the Alberta Agriculture Research Division looked into the meat quality of branded beef lines and in particular the tenderness of strip loins from Commodity, Natural and Organic products. Sampling conducted this year showed about 6% of under thirty months (UTM) and 40% of over thirty months (OTM) beef strip loins were classified as not tender after 14 days of aging. It is well known that research literature shows increasing age is related to decreasing tenderness in addition to interactions of individual muscle cuts, post-mortem aging and the quality grade (AAA, AA or A). This research project had a consumer taste panel rate the beef and found all systems were considered acceptable to the consumers. Consumers found no differences in aroma, juiciness and flavour amongst the Commodity, Natural and Organic strip loins. Intent to purchase the beef was also very highly correlated to these meat quality attributes.

While overall, the Natural product was the most tender, there were seasonal effects. Tenderness was best in the summer followed by the fall, with the spring season showing up as the least tender. The greater variation in the spring season is no surprise as inconsistent weather patterns, transport in variable weather conditions, long keep cattle being mixed with the short keep cattle all influenced handling, stress and age to negatively affect tenderness. Another significant difference in the systems studied showed Organic strip loins to be the leanest while Commodity loins had the highest fat content.

Remember that averages or means tell one story, but the variation in the product is the story both the cattle producer and the consumer want to hear. As far as consistency of tenderness, the Organic brand had the most consistent strip loins in the fall and winter while the Natural brand was most consistent in the summer and the Commodity in the spring. Scientific research backs the notion that implant strategies generally have a negative or no effect on tenderness, which may partly explain the tenderness results for the Organic and Natural brands which do not implant their cattle. Consistent product brings consumers back and builds the reputation for your brand. While it is extremely difficult to determine which, if any, production or management factors may have affected meat quality in this study, certainly tightening up a production protocol and knowing who is supplying the animals for your brand should ultimately reduce variation in product quality.

For the most part, this Alberta research has shown that the differences between Organic and Natural are largely based on credence attributes rather than on large meat quality differences. It means product characteristics can neither be directly perceived nor verified by consumers. Instead, people have to put trust in the presence of these attributes, for example, through reputation, labeling or controlling/auditing organizations.

Ultimately if tenderness, flavour and juiciness are all you are concerned with when selecting your protein source, there may be small differences from this research to help you narrow your decision as to which brand or product you will purchase. However, if as a consumer, you demand more information from those who produce your protein then having assurances from branded lines as to management history and quality control (humanely raised, environmentally sustainable, age verified, free of antibiotics etc.) will provide you with the additional peace of mind you require before making purchases.

As a cattle producer you have control over how your cattle are raised based on your targeted market. By design, production effects like age at slaughter, time to transport, days on feed, type of ration and implant protocol, or lack of, are unique to each management system and branded line. If you can align your cattle with the right brand; the one the consumer is asking for and willing to pay for, then labeling and advertising plans can be developed to help promote those distinct features of that product. More research is planned to look at consistency in meat quality attributes of branded beef lines as well as ways to non-destructively measure tenderness at the slaughter facility.