AGRICULTURE DNA testing shows Angus designation isn't always true
Genetics alone don't guarantee a quality cut of beef, an Ohio meat man said.
WASHINGTON -- The label says it's an Angus steak, and the premium price suggests that's right.
But is it really Angus?
ViaGen, based in Austin, Texas, says DNA testing has concluded half of the meat certified as Angus that its scientists bought in supermarkets across the nation weren't properly branded because they didn't meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's requirements for Angus content.
Steaks that carry the Angus brand sell for about 40 cents-a-pound more than steaks that aren't identified by breed.
Dwight Hartley, owner of Premium Gold Angus Beef in Austin, one of the oldest and largest of the certified Angus beef distributors for restaurants and supermarkets, said misbranding is undermining public confidence in labels.
Hartley said what's happened to Angus brands isn't fraud, but a flaw in Agriculture Department rules for determining what can be classified as Angus beef -- rules drafted 30 years ago at the request of the Angus industry before quick DNA testing was available. The Angus program was the USDA's first that certified animal breeds.
USDA rules say inspectors can determine whether a side of beef is Angus or another breed either by tracing the ancestry of the cattle back to Angus parents, or by visual inspection of the hide, which has to be more than 51 percent black to be classified as Angus. Pure Angus cattle are black.
Hartley said the problem is there are many other breeds of cattle have black hides and look like Angus. "I've gone through the process, and they look great," he said. But when cooked, he said the other breeds lack the quality, finish and taste of pure Angus.
"I like Starbucks coffee, and I'm willing to pay a premium for it. But the moment I go into Starbucks and get a coffee I don't like, I'm not likely to come back," Hartley said. "If I want the business, I've got to deliver. A lot of people are taking advantage of our program at the moment."
Hartley said he contracted with ViaGen to get assurance of the purity of the 4,500 head of cattle he sells each week in the United States. "No one in the business argues with the fact that Angus beef is the best eating experience," he said.
Minnie Lou Bradley, the president of the American Angus Association, said she questions the results of ViaGen's survey and called for further independent scientific testing.
"There's got to be a lot more testing," she said. She said the USDA program has operated well and made "certified Angus the most successful brand in the country."
Sara Davis, president of ViaGen, said scientists initially tested beef bought in Texas supermarkets and found that up to 50 percent of the samples didn't qualify for the Angus label. The company then bought samples of Angus beef sold in supermarkets across the country and found similar results.
A majority of the samples that failed DNA tests for Angus content were found to have high content of Brahman breeds that produce tougher cuts of meat. Braham beef do well on ranches in Florida and south Texas because they are more tolerant to heat and lack of water than purebred Angus.
"It didn't surprise me in general -- what surprised me was how ubiquitous it was," she said. She said the company gets results from its rapid DNA tests in two to four days.
Davis said the same DNA tests could be used on other branding programs certifying Hereford and Kobe beef and Berkshire pigs. "The methodology is applicable to any animal product," she said.
Brent Eichar, senior vice president of Certified Angus Beef of Wooster, Ohio, the company that petitioned for the certification program in 1978, said genetics alone don't guarantee a tasty cut of beef that consumers want.
Not a predictor
"Genetics alone is not a predictor of quality," he said. "You could have a purebred Angus cattle that would not match the quality product in our product line that is 92 percent Angus," he said.
He said his company makes no claim of 100 percent Angus cattle and said extensive cross-breeding by farmers casts doubt on any claims of pure breeds. He said cross-breeding is widely used in the meat industry to bring other qualities to the finished steak, including percentage of fat that makes steaks tasty and tender.
"You can lean on our standard, and look for our CAB (Certified Angus Beef) brand, and you don't have to be a meat scientist," he said.