Keith Belk, Professor of Safety and Quality

Keith Belk) The two things that are most important to consumers when they make a purchasing decision are food safety and eating satisfaction. In other words, how does the product perform for them, given an expectation for that performance that’s based on how much we ask them to pay for it. The first thing that we’ve tried to do as an industry is we’ve used marbling to try and address that. We select for marbling scores. We have EPDs from marbling scores. But in truth, we haven’t appeared to have made a lot of genetic progress because we actually produce fewer choices in prime carcasses today than we produced in the 1970s by quite a distance. The issue becomes if we do see any improvement, what was the reason for that improvement? Was it because we have modified the population genome by selecting for specific genes? In our case, it doesn’t appear to be so. It appears to be that any improvements that we’ve made in marbling score have been merely the consequence of changing the hide color of our population. There are a number of reasons for that. One of the reasons is that we don’t have a good pricing mechanism that sends appropriate signals to producers on what they should emphasize in their genetic selection, that’s the first problem. Another more important and concerning problem to me is that we do have EPDs for all of these characteristics, and I know lots of people that utilize them. I know there are some that don’t, but yet we’ve failed to really show substantial genetic improvement. My question becomes why is that so? I think it’s so because perhaps it’s not just the genome of the animal that we should be selecting against. Perhaps, it should be the genome of the animal, and the microbiota that live in and around the animal that we should be selecting for. Perhaps, what animal geneticists might be thinking about looking for in the future, is not only selecting for gene expression that occurs in the genome of cattle, but also gene expression that occurs in the genome of the microbiome, so all of the organisms that live together inside an animal. Moving forward, if we do want to then make true progress — genetic progress — that results in a phenotype of, for example improved eating satisfaction, that we select for those across wider genome than the way we’ve thought about it historically.

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