To optimize beef palatability, adequate post-mortem aging is, without question, necessary to ensure that tenderness and flavor of steaks and roasts are developed to the full potential for those cuts. Numerous studies support aging of beef, with most agreeing that at least 14 days of age is necessary to ensure adequate tenderness development. Aging times that are greater than 14 days are employed most often in the foodservice sector, but post-mortem aging requirements and processes for beef that is marketed through retail channels appear to be less formal. The objective of this study was to determine the actual post-mortem aging times for beef Rib and Loin cuts marketed through the retail channel.
Stores from targeted retailers in various parts of the United States were identified. Researchers followed Rib/Loin subprimals from fabrication, through the distribution and to the final retail package to measure true post-fabrication aging time. These data enabled researchers to assess what proportion of beef is adequately aged (14 days or more) in the retail channel. Most of this work involved in-store-cut product. In addition, scanning information from selected retailers was used to measure when products arrived at the store and when they were utilized at the store and presented in the retail case. This information allowed for analysis of product movement trends throughout the year.
The inventory-tracking software systems were originally designed to track cases of beef products ordered by retailers in an effort to meet Country of Origin Labeling requirements and provide traceability in the event of a recall. This software allows retailers to locate recall-implicated product in stores and determine if the affected products have been purchased. These inventory-tracking systems have the ability to follow beef products from the point of packer distribution to the retail store. Retailer employees scan box labels daily until the product has been merchandised to the consumer.
The mean post-mortem aging time evaluated in the retail beef supply chain varied greatly among subprimals and quality grades. Subprimal aging time at surveyed retail establishments averaged 26.3 days, with a range of 3 to 225 days. While the overall mean post-mortem aging time has improved compared to previously completed surveys, there was still 15.2% of boxed subprimals that were being aged <14 days. Shortloins had the least amount (6.8%) of boxed beef subprimals aged for less than 14 days, and Ribeyes had the greatest amount (21.5%) of boxed beef subprimals aged for less than 14 days. Of the surveyed beef products, 79.0% of packages bore no production claims such as natural, organic, grass-fed, etc.
The majority of the post-mortem aging times observed in this study took place from the packer to the retailer and not from the retailer to the consumer. When the number of retail features increased, the average post-mortem aging time increased during that month as well. Weekly beef feature data suggest that beef items are more heavily featured around March-April and October-December when other meat items may be a more popular choice for the consumer to purchase. Overall, the beef industry appears to be better utilizing post-mortem aging to improve beef retail products, but there is room for improvement.
Adequately aging beef before consumption is a critical and necessary step in ensuring that the consumer will have a positive eating experience resulting in increased demand for beef. With beef prices now at an all-time high, it is even more important that beef meets or exceeds consumer expectations. Lack of sufficient aging before consumption may place beef at a greater risk of failing to deliver an eating experience that the consumer desires.
Figure 1. Frequency distribution of product cases (n = 2,853) bearing production claims.
Figure 2. Frequency distribution of total weekly beef features (n = 871) and weekly middle meat features (n = 449) presented by month. Beef features from five major retail grocery chains were tracked weekly from July 2014 to June 2015.