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Genetic links identify which animal’s meat is most tender

If producers offer certification of tenderness, our company could market it to stores or restaurants

— Harry Bojarski, Ryding Regency Meat Packers

Nothing could please a steak lover more than to know the piece of meat just purchased will be tender. While there are many certification programs that claim the most tender meat, there is no guarantee. According to beef quality audits, tenderness is near the top of the list of consumers’ preferences when buying meat so proof that the meat is tender could encourage them to purchase beef more often.

In order to address the age-old quest for a tender cut of beef, a research team at the University of Guelph has identified genetic markers linked to tenderness in beef and developed a means to screen for it. One of the key tests is now being offered in a package that producers can also use to screen for desired traits and disease. Dr. Stephen Miller says his research, funded by the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, has identified genetic information that relates to tenderness. His tool is single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) which are small differences between genes that produce diversity in beef characteristics, such as tenderness.

“We looked in genes that we hoped would be related to tenderness,” explains Dr. Miller. “We were able to identify an SNP linked to the protein calpastatin, which works against natural tenderizing agents to keep meat tough. However, another protein, calpain, weakens muscle fibre to increase tenderness.” Therefore, he adds, the two proteins working together can have a significant effect on tenderness.

The identification of a genetic market for tenderness could have a significant impact on the beef industry from selective breeding programs to marketing the end product. There is also the possibility that meat identified as having a high tenderness rating will not have to be hung for as long after slaughter speeding the throughput of product.

Testing for tenderness using Dr. Miller’s findings is available through Igenity, a division of Merial that offers a profiling service to the beef industry. Eastern Canada Igenity representative, Greg Stewart says the genetic marker identified by Dr. Miller is one of hundreds of markers in the profile the company uses to describe the genetic makeup of meat traits. The cost for an Igenity profile is $40, but producers get a comprehensive picture of the animal, including its potential for tenderness.

“We can identify tenderness within all breeds,” Stewart explains. “If you can identify an animal with a big rib-eye area and a large carcass yield plus a high tenderness score, you could use that information to market progeny from that animal.” He adds that Canada’s sophisticated tagging system that allows animals to be tracked could also be used to selectively market animals that will be most tender. Igenity bases its scores on the Warner-Bratzler shear force measurement, a standardized test for tenderness used in the meat industry, with a score of 10 being the one producers would like to see most often.

The full impact of what can be accomplished now that genetic potential for tenderness has been identified may not be determined for a while. The cost of the test may keep some producers from ordering it until they understand how it can improve the marketing possibilities for their animals.

Harry Bojarski of Ryding Regency Meat Packers in Toronto, suggests that proof of a high tenderness score could be useful if there was enough volume to satisfy potential markets. “We are the perfect middleman for this information,” he says. “It could work similarly to other marketing strategies, such as Certified Corn Fed or Certified Angus. If a producer group developed a program to offer certification of tenderness, our company could market it to stores or restaurants.” However, he reasserts that marketing programs such as he envisions are only successful if demand can be met.

“We know aging will increase tenderness, but with a genetic marker to identify tenderness, hanging time could be reduced which will affect the bottom line,” adds Stewart.

Meanwhile, Dr. Miller sees an application for the test in selective breeding programs and to better administer management programs. Currently, there are premiums paid for certain traits, so why not for tenderness, he asks. In the case of breeding programs, semen from bulls with a high genetic tenderness score may command a premium as well.

“Not all producers are going to test for tenderness because it costs money,” Dr. Miller admits. “However, this is just the beginning of how this can work and, as we learn more about the implications, we will likely see more wide-scale adoption of the test and the information it provides.”

Meanwhile, Igenity offers the test for producers who want to know if the animals they believe will have the most tender carcasses actually have the genetic potential for this trait. Dr. Miller is working to identify other SNPs linked to tenderness to further improve the power of the panel. As well, consumers looking for the perfect, tender steak may need to be educated on what it means when that steak in the cooler is marked “Certified Tender.” In a country where grilling steak on the barbecue is a summer tradition, identifying the genetic markers to guarantee tenderness has numerous implications for marketing, breeding, managing and, even, cooking.

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