Even if the beef is tough, as brisket might be, a cook can throw it in a pressure cooker to steam blast the muscle fibers into sublime tenderness. However, if that meat is to be broiled, fried, or grilled—as steaks are—consumers will often readily pay for premium grades of beef. In hopes of ensuring that the premium cut they’re buying actually is tender, shoppers have increasingly reached for supermarket cuts labeled as certified Angus beef. Alas, what they get isn’t always tender.

ANGUS, BUT. . . Tests confirmed that, genetically, these calves are 75 percent Angus. However, they would fail the Inducator test because they are also one-quarter Brahman. ViaGen

THE REAL MCCOY. This animal, a pedigreed Angus, would pass both new ViaGen tests. ViaGen

A new internal-company study now offers data to suggest why. It finds that at least half of the genetic inheritance of many of the animals identified at the slaughterhouse as Angus—based on their coloration and basic shape—actually traces to some other breed. Often, more than a quarter of the heritage of these animals is Brahman. This hardy breed is adapted to hot, southern climes, but it also often produces chewy meat.

ViaGen, Inc. of Austin, Texas, a company that develops agricultural-genetics technologies and services, has created and plans to soon market a set of tests to reveal segments of DNA that are characteristic of various breeds of cattle. The tests establish what share of an animal’s genetic lineage traces to a particular breed, explains Sara L. Davis, the company president.

According to the American Angus Association, to qualify for Angus certification, 51 percent of a cow has to be black, the animal has to bear the standard shape of a pedigreed Angus, and its carcass must meet a number of Agriculture Department grading criteria—such as showing a “modest or higher degree of [fat] marbling.”

However, Davis notes, an animal doesn’t have to be purebred Angus to get the valuable label at the slaughterhouse. Indeed, she notes, “animals that go to a feedlot and become beef are often several generations removed from a pedigreed animal. I have 50 cows at home on my ranch in the hill country,” she says. “And I’m pretty unusual in that I have 10 or 12 that actually have pedigrees and are registered.”

Identifying Angus cattle by sight sufficed 2 decades ago, Davis maintains, when the majority of black cattle in the United States were members of that breed. However, as tender beef’s popularity has grown, livestock breeders have increasingly been crossing true Angus with other cattle to impart Angus traits to other cattle lines. The result, says Davis, is that meat from animals that look like Angus cattle may not taste or chew like premium Angus beef. ViaGen’s new genetic testing system has been designed to offer producers, wholesalers, retailers, and even consumers a more reliable gauge of what to expect when they bite into meat from black cattle, Davis says.

Brands offer no guarantee

Until recently, U.S. meat was a commodity. It was sold by grade and cut, but not by brand. So, there was nothing to distinguish the beef sold by one packinghouse from that sold by another—other than price. With all things being equal, consumers went for the product costing least.

In the past decade, however, meat marketers have realized that if they can offer consumers more reliability in flavor, tenderness, or some other feature, shoppers may be willing to pay a little more. To distinguish these ostensibly better products, companies have been branding them: the mid-Atlantic Perdue Farms was one of the first to do this for chicken.

A number of beef purveyors have now gone that route with their Angus cuts. They’ve offered certified Angus beef under a company’s brand name. ViaGen collected multiple samples over a period of time from each of the leading brands marketed in central Texas and assayed them with two different DNA tests. AnguSure is a test that identifies animals with at least 51 percent true Angus DNA. The Inducator test scouts for Brahman markers. Tissues passing this test must derive less than 25 percent of their genes from that breed.

In its initial Texas tests, 92 percent of the meat sampled from one brand of certified Angus beef passed both tests. Among most other brands, some 70 to 80 percent of the beef passed both tests, with the remainder failing the Angus test only. However, in one brand, half of all sampled meat failed both tests, and all of the rest failed either the Angus or Brahman tests. Ironically, ViaGen found that regular—that is, unbranded—supermarket beef was just as likely to pass both tests as was this last brand.

Wondering whether the dilution of Angus genetics by DNA from other breeds is just a problem in Texas, Davis’ company acquired additional beef samples from a single major brand that distributes beef in Nebraska, Kansas, and Illinois, as well as Texas. Broad genetic variability again emerged. Indeed, in two states—one of them Texas—11 to 14 percent of the beef samples failed both tests. In those states, another 21 to 29 percent failed the Inducator test that detects significant Brahman DNA.

In all, ViaGen tested 560 commercial cuts of beef for these surveys. Davis now plans follow-up surveys in conjunction with a university to evaluate whether beef passing tests that establish a high-Angus, low-Brahman pedigree are flavorful and tender.

Her company’s goal was not to “go out and bust the brands,” Davis says, because “we actually are very strong proponents of beef.” In fact, her company has built its reputation on developing technologies to improve the genetics of agricultural products stocks.

With ViaGen’s soon-to-be marketed tests, she says, DNA testing could be conducted on live animals, carcasses, or individual samples of meat.

Davis predicts that the greatest value of the tests will be for farmers screening their breeding stock. Once a farmer establishes that all the cattle to be bred meet a high-Angus, low-Brahman standard, he or she could certify the heritage of all offspring. The farmer might even implant in each certified animal an electronic chip that would identify an animal as genuine Angus all the way to the slaughterhouse. Davis argues that such a certification plan would give consumers higher-quality meat than they get currently while yielding higher incomes for meat producers, processors, and retailers.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine

From the Nature Index

Paid Content