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Over the last three decades, the National Beef Tenderness Survey (NBTS) has benchmarked the palatability of beef about every five years. In 1990, the first NBTS was conducted to determine the tenderness of various beef cuts in the retail case using Warner-Bratzler shear (WBS) force and trained sensory panels. In the later surveys, food service cuts were added, and a consumer sensory panel was used instead of a trained sensory panel. Over the years, retail cuts have been added to and removed from the survey to reflect current market trends and collect the most appropriate information possible.
For the 2021 NBTS, we added ground beef. Through the 1990s, the types of ground beef sold at retail-focused primarily on lean content. In addition, although there were chub packages available in most retail markets, most of the ground beef was sold as freshly ground and packaged in PVC-overwrapped trays. In recent years, the variety of ground beef sold in the marketplace has changed drastically. There are at least three prominent styles of packaging used today: PVC-overwrapped trays, chub, and brick. There are an array of ground beef products designed to appeal to a diverse set of consumers. Assessing the texture and sensory characteristics of the currently available ground beef products provide a benchmark for future consumer acceptance studies.
The objectives of this study were: 1) to determine tenderness and other sensory characteristics of US retail and foodservice steaks using WBS force and consumer sensory panels, 2) To collect grade, brand, and other label claims from steak packages, 3) to analyze the texture profile and other sensory characteristics of various types of ground beef found at retail using compression and consumer sensory panels, 4) to collect market data on the type (lean point, primal-specific, packaging type, etc.) of ground beef in retail cases.
Retail cities were chosen to represent a broad geographical range and to maintain some historical linkage with cities used in previous NBTS surveys. Cities surveyed included: Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Denver, CO; Houston, TX; Kansas City, MO; Las Vegas, NV; Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Seattle, WA; and Tampa, FL. In each city, two to three retail chains, representing at least one-third of the total area market share were selected, with four stores per chain being sampled. Thus, products were obtained from a total of 8 to 12 supermarket stores per metropolitan area. In addition, if a club retail store (i.e., Sam’s Club, Costco, etc.) existed in the city and was not included in the top one-third market share, then one club chain store was sampled.
Although all cuts were not collected in every store, brand names and grades of products available were recorded for every store. Retail steaks selected: Top blade steak; Ribeye steak, lip on, boneless; Ribeye steak, lip on, bone-in; Top loin steak, boneless; Top loin steak, bone-in; T-bone steak; Porterhouse steak; Top sirloin steak, boneless, cap off; Tenderloin steak, side muscle off, defatted.
Food service establishments also were sampled and products were directly shipped to Texas A&M University. Each USDA quality grade/brand category (USDA Prime, Top Choice, Choice, and Select) that selected establishments fabricated into steaks was evaluated. Brand designation, marketing claims, enhancement with percentage pumped, sodium content, and tenderization status were recorded, if present. All foodservice steaks were handled in the same manner as provided above for the retail cuts. Foodservice steaks sampled: Ribeye steak, lip-on, boneless; Strip loin steak, boneless; Top sirloin butt steaks, boneless; and Tenderloin steak, side muscle off, defatted.
For every city, ground beef packaged in PVC trays of differing lean endpoint (80/20, 90/10 and 88/12) were purchased and evaluated. In Houston, TX, Los Angeles, CA, New York, NY, Philadelphia, PA and Las Vegas, NV, every type of ground beef present in the retail case from the middle-income stores of each retail chain were purchased.
All retail packages were shipped to Texas A&M University and all steak package information including brand designation and marketing claims were recorded. Steak weight, external fat thickness, and steak thickness were measured for each steak. Steaks were randomly assigned to WBS evaluation or consumer sensory panels. For ground beef, lean endpoint, package type, primal source, and brand/claims were recorded. Ground beef packages were paired by lean point and package type, and one package was designated for consumer sensory panels and the other was designated for texture profile analysis. Packages designated for texture profile analysis were evaluated for subjective color, objective color, and pH. Each ground beef package then was split and formed into three patties. All ground beef patties were identified individually, vacuum-packaged, and stored frozen (-40°C) until subsequent analyses.
There was increase in the number of packages with brands or claims on the retail steak labels from the past three surveys. This may be due to the retail customer being more interested in where their food comes from, which may influence their purchasing decisions. Additionally, this increase may relate to the fact that there are more branded/certification programs available than there were five years ago. USDA quality grades/brand category did not significantly impact foodservice steak WBS force or consumer ratings for overall like, tenderness like, tenderness level, flavor like, and juiciness like.
In general, most retail steaks evaluated in this study were considered “very tender”, and all retail cuts decreased in WBS force value when compared to the 2015 and 2010 surveys. Although the ribeye and top loin foodservice steaks showed an increase in WBS force values when compared to 2015 survey, this increase did not negatively impact consumer sensory ratings of the product. A decrease in WBS was noted for the foodservice top sirloin steaks.
Since the last time being surveyed in 1990, the WBS force of retail tenderloin steaks decreased over 10 N. In both retail and foodservice sectors, the tenderloin had the lowest WBS force values. The retail tenderloin steak received the highest consumer rating for overall like, tenderness like, tenderness level, flavor like, and juiciness like. Of the ground beef available in retails cases, approximately 68.26% included at least one brand/claim on the package, with Natural being the most prevalent brand/claims recorded. Additionally, 20.12% of ground beef packages had primal-specific labeling, with beef chuck having the highest occurrence.
When evaluating lean point, 85% lean/15 % fat was the most common lean point available in retail cases across the U.S. When evaluating differences in packaging types, PVC-overwrapped product had the highest percent lean discoloration internally and externally. Product color gradually got darker, both internally and externally, as lean point increased. The pH for the product collected based on lean endpoint and package type provided minimal differences with a pH range of (5.73-5.9). Products from chub packaging had the highest values across objective color evaluation for a* and b* measurements, internally and externally.
For ground beef sensory analysis as is relates to package type, vacuum-packaged bricks outperformed PVC packaging for all aspects of the evaluation: overall liking, tenderness liking, tenderness level, flavor liking and juiciness liking. Lean point provided minimal to no differences in consumer sensory data for overall liking, tenderness liking, tenderness level, and juiciness liking. Cook yield was impacted by both package type and lean point (P < 0.05), and cook time was impacted by lean point (P < 0.05).
Texture profile analysis for ground beef products in PVC-overwrapped packaging had the highest means for gumminess and chewiness (P < 0.05), indicating that products from PVC-overwrapped packaging require more total energy to chew. Ground beef products from the 92%lean/8% fat endpoint also produced the highest ratings for gumminess and chewiness (P < 0.05).
Retail and food service steaks were quite tender and flavorful. There were some isolated instances where unexpected variation in food service shear forces values occurred that may have been attributed to steak size and thickness combinations that impacted cook times. This was the first large-scale study of consumer acceptance and texture profiles of ground beef in the marketplace. Lean-points, package type, and marketing claims were all evaluated, and packaging time did impact quality and palatability. Additional research is needed to further evaluate ground beef acceptance.