In 1987 the beef industry shifted its marketing focus to leaner beef, and the Good category was renamed Select. It seemed a rather inconsequential change to consumers at the time, but the effects on the quality of American beef have been far-reaching.So, is the American steak scene like professional journalism? Getting worse all the time as we get older?
"The downgrading of American meat is a major scandal, a venal conspiracy," writes Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything. Steingarten has studied USDA files and photos that document the various grades of American beef through the century. The year 1987 wasn't the first time standards were lowered. They were dropped repeatedly at the behest of the cattle industry from the 1930s through the 1970s, Steingarten reports. But the changes in 1987 were different; they represented not just a shift in grading standards but a shift in thinking.
"The term Good was changed to Select, solely for the purpose of tricking hapless Americans into accepting extremely lean beef. As one consequence, what is sold today as USDA Prime is no better marbled than the upper half of the inexpensive Good grade back in 1927," Steingarten says.
"The beef industry has started feeding cattle differently in order to produce leaner beef," a spokesperson of the National Cattlemen's Association told me. "As a result, the production of USDA Prime is down. The grading system has also been changed. The highest level of USDA Prime isn't even produced anymore. American beef is 27 percent leaner today than it was 20 years ago."
The major difference between Prime, Choice and Good/Select is the degree of marbling (intermuscular fat) in the beef. Prime is roughly 15 percent more marbled than Choice, and Choice is about 15 percent more marbled than Select. Now that the average American consumer has become so paranoid about fat, we are paying a premium for poorer-quality beef. Cattlemen, in turn, are pushed to produce ever leaner cattle. The result is a drastic decline in the quality of all grades.
What's left of our best beef is mostly sold to the people who appreciate it more than we do. Eighty percent of USDA Prime is now exported, a large part of it to Japan. The Japanese, whose rice-and-seafood diet has long been the paragon of healthy eating, are no fools when it comes to beef. They'll pay top dollar for our well-marbled cuts. In quality-conscious Japan, they want the best, and as any chef will tell you, the more marbling in a steak, the better the flavor. Although American chefs are always looking for the best beef they can buy, they are often frustrated by the attitudes of their patrons.
"People freak out if they see the least bit of fat on their steaks," says Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie. "They don't even want to see the circle of fat in the middle of a good rib eye.". (Houston Press)
Probably not. Below, we're seeing science start to give us the best of both worlds: pure protein of offscale tender quality!
But some Aggie scientists reject the notion that a USDA grade accurately measures the quality of beef. They measure quality meat by three "palatability attributes" -- tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Those may not sound like scientific terms to you, but they are to the scientists at A&M. And what they have concluded, after countless studies, is that tenderness is the key to quality. The A&M Meat Science Center's quest is to find the holy grail of beef -- meat that is both high in quality and low in fat.It looks like the steak industry, big picture, is actually better than ever. Just like journalism, online and elsewhere.
I had always assumed that marbling ensured tenderness. But in tests employing both objective instruments and human taste testers, scientists have proved that marbling is not a reliable indicator. Other factors, including genetics and the animal's stress level, both during its lifetime and at the time of slaughter, have an effect on tenderness that is not apparent to the eye of the grader or the consumer.
It also has been discovered that tenderness can be enhanced after the slaughter. Calcium-chloride injections speed up aging, as does high-voltage electrical stimulation. It is conceivable that through high-tech methods, lean beef could be rendered as soft and buttery as USDA Prime used to be.
Charlie Bradbury, chief executive of Beefmaster Cattlemen LP in Huntsville, is one of the high-tech pioneers. He heads up a project for Beefmaster Breeders United, an organization that promotes Beefmaster cattle, a breed of Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman that's native to South Texas. The cattle are slaughtered at a plant in Corpus Christi, where the sides of beef are then shocked with 400 volts and evaluated with a digital apparatus called the BeefCam, which rates the color of the rib eye and gives the beef a tenderness score. The top scorers qualify for Beefmaster's premium label, which they have contracted Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan to help pitch. Nolan Ryan's Tender Aged Beef brand can now be found at Houston grocery stores.
Ryan's beef does not carry a USDA grade, and meat experts are betting that consumers won't care. "Improving palatability is the point," Hale says. That's why meat scientists in Texas are now more focused on reducing animal stress, isolating the "tenderness genes" through DNA testing, and using electric shock and chemicals to accelerate aging than they are on USDA grades. (Houston Press, linked today by Kevin; all the NAB Prime parts are cut and served for you right here, but the rest of both articles are at least NAB Good)
It's just that the old, traditional cores of beef & journalism are rotting away. They are each too old and too lean to fuel tomorrow's active heart.