You bite into your medium-rare steak, salivating over the prospect of savouring this culinary delight.
But your expectations immediately turn into a frown, as you begin to chew and chew and then chew some more. Too tough to swallow, you push the unwanted slab aside, disappointed in this beef experience.
You are not alone. Consumer surveys reveal that one of four steaks is too tough to chew — a serious problem considering tenderness is the No. 1 quality people look for in a steak.
Beef may be juicy and full of flavour, but if it’s a jaw-breaker, industry officials fear shoppers will begin buying more poultry or pork.
Down on the ranch, cattle producers are taking the public’s beef seriously, hoping research scientists will be successful in determining if tenderness is controlled in part by genetics. In an ongoing study, scientists at the University of Saskatchewan are attempting to map such traits as meat tenderness.
Such a discovery would enable cattle producers to select bulls based on whether they carried genetic signs for meat tenderness. There is no way to directly measure or predict beef tenderness while the animal is alive.
“We need consistency. We don’t want people wondering if the meat they have bought will be tender. We need to get rid of the guesswork,” said Gary Sargent, general manager of the Alberta Cattle Commission.
If the beef industry is to stay healthy, it must compete successfully with the poultry and pork industries, which provide a consistent quality, Sargent said. Achieving predictable tenderness in cattle is a challenge because the animals are large, with more muscle, he said.
The U of S project, funded by the federal government, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Alberta Cattle Commission, began five years ago, said Dr. Sheila Schmutz of the university’s animal and poultry science department. The research is complex and may not be as as simple as discovering one specific gene responsible for a tenderness trait, said Schmutz, the project co-ordinator.
The research has established a possible link between tenderness and a region on a specific chromosome. The next phase of the project will attempt to narrow the region and pinpoint whether there is a specific gene or combination of genes involved, Schmutz said.
So far, Schmutz’s work has confirmed a U.S. study suggesting that the gene mucalpain is involved in determining tenderness. Mucalpain is a gene responsible for muscle relaxation, and may dictate how well muscles relax after an animal is slaughtered and hung.
“But there are probably more genes than just that one . . . we are pursuing some other hot leads.”
Genetics alone, however, also won’t guarantee a tender animal. Animals stressed before slaughter and a too-short post-mortem aging period can also reduce tenderness. The meat also has to be properly packaged and cooked, placing some responsibility on retailers and consumers.