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Cattlemen's group making the cut

CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP)--Meat scientist Bridget Wasser is on a search for what she calls "diamonds in the rough.''

Her prospecting tool is a 6-inch boning knife. The diamond field is a 27-pound beef chuck roll, not long ago a steer's shoulder.

A few deft incisions here, a succession of quick slices there, and Wasser has produced her gems: a tray full of steaks and roasts rescued from an otherwise pedestrian future as ground beef.

Not that Wasser's employer, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, or NCBA, has anything against hamburger.

But consider the economics. Is the beef shoulder's highest and best use $3-a-pound ground chuck, or a steak fetching $6 or more a pound?

The Centennial-based NCBA has spent more than $14 million over the past decade to discover new beef cuts. And the process continues, with more funding earmarked in coming years to discover and market new products. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have contributed to the development of new beef cuts.

Feedback from meatpackers, retailers and consumers has been generally favorable. Ranchers, who fund the beef marketing program with a $1-a-head fee, have been less enthusiastic. Some say they're not benefiting from higher carcass values.

"Absolutely the program is helping sell beef and enhancing prices for meatpackers and retailers,'' said Joel Gill, a Pickens, Miss., livestock dealer and an official with the Rancher-Cattlemen's Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, an advocacy group commonly known as R-CALF.

"But our problem is that it's not helping our bottom line,'' Gill said. "Very little of this increased value is returned to the producers.''

Eight new chuck cuts have been introduced. Next year, a similar program will start with a focus on the round, or hind section.

The program's trophy achievement so far is development of the flat iron steak, a moderately priced cut whose sales have grown almost 100-fold since it was introduced in 2005.

With a big marketing push from the beef industry, the nation's restaurants now sell more flat irons than T-bones. The flat iron sells at grocery stores in the range of $5 to $8 a pound.

Next up is the Denver steak. The new cut is being test-marketed in grocery stores in the Pacific Northwest and soon could be introduced nationally. Like the flat iron, the Denver is carved from sections of the chuck that previously yielded tougher and bonier cuts.

Cattle anatomy hasn't changed much in recent millennia. But the way carcasses are butchered is at the heart of the beef industry's push.

The effort began several years ago when the NCBA spent $1.5 million for a detailed study on cattle muscles and their relationship to bone and nonedible connective tissue.

Researchers discovered that with techniques as simple as rotating a carcass 90 degrees from the usual way it is butchered, cuts of beef could be extracted that formerly were too tough or gristly for stand-alone consumption.

"We've been able to find muscles that we (previously) thought were too small, or too tough, or too hard to get to,'' Wasser said. "It's allowed us to give consumers a steak-eating experience from parts of the animal that mostly have gone to ground beef.''

For example, the flat iron comes from a portion of the chuck known for its tenderness, but traditional butchering techniques left it with a section of tough connective tissue in the middle.

The research program found a new way to cut the section without including the gristle.

"The flat iron is a less expensive cut that has the eating quality of higher-end middle cuts,'' said Keith Belk, an animal-science professor with Colorado State University's Center for Meat Safety and Quality.

Belk said the NCBA's research program "adds value to the entire carcass by doing things with the parts that otherwise would have been ground.''

Some meat purveyors are bemused by the attention the program is getting. They note that many butchers had discovered the carving techniques and the "new'' cuts long before the industry's foray into restaurants and grocery stores.

"There are no new cuts from a cow,'' said Mick Rosacci, vice president and corporate chef at Tony's Market.

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