Subscribe to Engineering @ Nebraska Online
UNL scientists have developed a way to predict steak tenderness before the consumer takes that first bite. The technology could be a boon to the beef industry as it would allow retailers to charge a premium for a "Guaranteed tender" label.
"Beef tenderness is a primary factor in consumer satisfaction," said Jeyamkondan Subbiah, assistant professor of biological systems engineering and the food engineer who heads the research. "However, a sufficiently accurate, nondestructive method of online evaluation of tenderness continues to elude the beef industry."
Current U.S. Department of Agriculture grading standards classify beef carcasses into quality and yield grades but do not assess tenderness. Since carcasses are not priced on tenderness, producers don't have a financial incentive to supply tender product.
The beef industry long has sought technology that could scan fresh meat at two to three days postmortem and predict its tenderness when cooked by the consumer about two weeks later.
UNL is developing that technology. Its approach uses a hyperspectral imaging, a novel technology that combines video image analysis and spectroscopy. The system consists of a digital video camera and spectrograph to capture the two key qualities that affect beef tenderness- muscle structure and biochemical properties.
In the research, two-day aged, one-inch thick ribeyes were placed on a plate and scanned by the system.
The combination of the video images and spectroscopy is key, Subbiah said. The video technology captures the muscle profile. Tender beef has fine muscle fibers, while tough beef has visibly coarser muscle fibers. The spectroscopy measures biochemical properties that indicate how much the steak will become tender during aging.
After scanning, the steaks were cooked and tested. Results so far are promising. The system predicted three tenderness categories - tender, intermediate and tough - with about 77 percent accuracy and two tenderness categories - acceptable and tough - with 93.7 percent accuracy.
Subbiah said a premium for guaranteed-tender product could be $1 to $2 per pound.
Researchers will continue to hone this process.