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Geneticists are unlocking the secrets of the grocery story, and what they're finding is surprising.
First it was the fish counter, where researchers recently discovered that as much as 77% of all fish sold as red snapper actually wasn't red snapper.
Now it's the meat counter.
Scientists at a Texas company creating genetic tests for individual cattle breeds tested 560 cuts of beef sold as certified Angus and found that between 8% and 50% of the cuts weren't genetically at least 50% Angus.
The Angus breed is considered particularly tasty because its meat is well marbled with fat. Producers have been capitalizing on the Angus name since the 1970s.
Viagen, of Austin, tested beef purchased in Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Illinois in 2003 and 2004. Four different Angus-branded beef labels were tested. Using two separate tests, the company looked for more than 50% Angus lineage and less than 25% Brahman, a breed associated with increased toughness.
The four brands varied widely in the percentage of samples that fit the Angus profile: 92%, 83%, 71% and 50%. When Viagen tested a non-Angus-branded beef label as a control, they found that 47% of those samples fit the Angus profile.
The findings aren't surprising, says Davey Griffin, a meat specialist at Texas A&M University, because certified Angus beef programs are actually based on hide color, not genetics.
In fact, of more than 30 Angus beef certification programs verified by USDA, only four require actual genetic confirmation. The rest, mostly older programs, are based on visual identification and require only that the animal's hide be 51% black. That's primarily because in the past hide color was the most reliable indicator of breed.
''They don't have to show or prove any Angus background,'' Griffin says.
The criteria used for the Certified Angus Beef brand, one of the oldest Angus certifications, are focused on quality issues, says a spokesman for the company that oversees the program. They include marbling, degree of muscling relative to fat, and age rather than genetics, says Brent Eichar of Certified Angus Beef LLC.
''We're a breed-influenced program,'' Eichar says. ''We talk about the Angus influence, but we nowhere make claims of it as a pure breed.''
But, Eichar says, it's the criteria that determine ''what's a good eating experience, whether it's 98% or 56% or 46% Angus.''
Griffin agrees that such criteria give the brand its value. But eventually, as tests such as the Viagen one become more common, the actual genetics of an animal may correspond better with the breed listed on the package, he says.
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