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New Zealand and Australia race to find beef like butter

New Zealand and Australia are racing to find meat tenderness genes, which could make chewy beef a thing of the past, and give beef exports a boost.

Dr Neil Clarke, Meat New Zealand's General Manager of Research and Development announced a two-year project to find New Zealand cattle carrying the gene Calpain 1, which accounts for around 30 percent of the differences in beef tenderness.

Clarke said: "New Zealand and Australia are searching for different genes, both of which affect tenderness. The prize will be a leap ahead in local and chilled export beef trade if either of us can guarantee that consumers can buy melt-in-the mouth grass-fed beef as a matter of routine."

"The stakes are high." Clarke said. "New Zealand's export beef market is worth $1.7 billion, and Australia is one of our main competitors in global beef exports."

Meat New Zealand has contracted AgResearch to scan twelve New Zealand cattle breeds to determine the frequency of the Calpain 1 gene. Clarke said: "Once farmers know which animals are carrying the gene, they can breed from those cattle to ensure that their entire herds guarantee tender meat."

"The other approach is to test a herd for the gene, and channel animals carrying the gene into prime beef production, and others into manufacturing beef production for hamburgers where tenderness is not such an issue." Clarke said.

Clarke emphasised that while genetics has a strong influence, so do environmental and management practices. "Knowing the tenderness gene is there does not mean you can neglect looking after the animal and handling it properly particularly around the time of slaughter." Clarke said. "Other factors like nutrition, stress, and processing can have just as big an impact on tenderness as the genes."

AgResearch scientist Dr Chris Morris said that the Calpain 1 gene is present in all cattle, but has two versions, one tough and one tender. He said that a DNA test developed in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture identifies the difference between the tender and tough versions of the gene.

"There is tremendous interest in the research from New Zealand breed societies such as the Hereford and Angus groups, and I have already had enquiries from individual breeders." Morris said.

The research follows on from an original discovery two years ago by AgResearch of a variant of the Calpain 1 gene in Jersey/Limousin cross cattle. This gene turned out to be the same tender form of the tenderness gene, which US scientists had already discovered in different breeds and crosses of cattle.

Odd spot: Humans also carry the Calpain 1 gene for toughness or tenderness.

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