WOOSTER, Ohio – Research conducted by Colorado State University meat science professor Daryl Tatum and his team describes the links between key sensory attributes and quality grades. “Marbling has kind of gotten a bum rap from a lot of people saying it really doesn’t predict much,” Tatum said. “But across the full range, it has predicative capabilities. When you can measure it precisely, it does a really good job.”

Funded by The Beef Checkoff and commissioned by the industry’s Joint Product Enhancement Committee, the study looked at camera-based quality grade calls and their correlation to eating experience. “What we found was a really strong relationship between marbling and sensory properties in particular,” Tatum said.

A panel evaluated steaks from carcasses that were camera-graded into seven different marbling scores, ranging from traces to moderately abundant, or USDA Standard to Prime. Panelists were asked to quantify the presence of specific flavors such as “meaty, brothy” or other descriptors. Ratings on tenderness, juiciness and the overall sensory experience were also given.

Tenderness and “buttery, beef-fat” flavor accounted for 91 percent of the variation in overall sensory experience; while 40 percent of tenderness variation and 71 percent of variation in that desirable flavor was due to marbling score.

Buttery flavor was far less of a factor at the lower end of the marbling range, Tatum said. “But it increased stepwise all the way up to Prime,” he added. “It really rose pretty quickly.” Ratings for tenderness and overall eating experience rode the same escalator.

Marbling’s contribution to those factors was much higher than shown by research from a few decades ago, according to Tatum. “The relationships are stronger, and we think a lot of that is because the camera is much more consistent in calling marbling,” he said. “If you improve the precision of the measurement, the predication capabilities go up. Marbling is a very good predictor of eating quality.”

Cargill Meat Solutions is using camera-called marbling scores in all of its beef plants. Glen Dolezal, Cargill’s assistant vice president of business development and field sales leader, said the company’s experiences have been positive.

“The cameras have been a big success story,” he said. “Our customers have been very pleased with the consistency they’re getting box to box, based on marbling levels and other traits.”

Producers benefit from those reliable calls, too, as they are trying to make genetic and management changes based on carcass data, he said.

The Colorado research shows “the beef trade has it figured out. Prime is its own category and the upper two-thirds of Choice is another category by itself,” Tatum said.

The probability of a positive eating experience within the Prime grade is 98 percent to 99 percent. With modest and moderate amounts of marbling, the threshold for many premium Choice brands, the chance of a good eating experience is 82 percent to 88 percent. This is in stark contrast to low Choice at 62 percent or Select at 29 percent. The Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand includes selections from premium Choice and Prime.