At Cargill Inc.'s feedlots in Kansas and Texas, the cattle move through the chute one by one. They get their vaccines, their wormer. They're checked for lice. Their ears are pierced and tagged.
Then blood samples are shipped to a California lab run by MetaMorphix Inc., of Beltsville, where they are run through a genotyping machine that quickly analyzes the animals' DNA. If it shows the genetic traits to produce the tender, thickly marbled beef that fetches top prices, it will get an extra few weeks of fattening on an expensive, high-energy diet. Otherwise it's off to a life munching cheap grass and hay, and a strong possibility of being ground into a meat pie.
Edwin C. Quattlebaum, chief executive of MetaMorphix in Beltsville, is pushing the idea that genetic science will produce better, more predictable beef.
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Upending a culture of cowboy boots, Stetson hats and pride in being able to choose the best beef cows from a herd by sight alone, MetaMorphix and a few other biotech entrepreneurs have developed DNA tests to tell with near certainty which animals will produce the juiciest steaks. With three companies working on different technologies, and major agribusinesses such as Cargill maneuvering to support them, the competition could be stiff.
But the potential exists to revolutionize how cows, pigs and chickens are culled and marketed -- saving the industry millions of dollars in feed costs by specifying which animals should be given the best diet, and providing a more rigorous system for grading meat quality than the current visual inspection allows. Feedlot operators can check the results on the Internet and plan what to do with each animal.
"I think that in the long term, over the next 20 years, this kind of technology will absolutely have a huge impact on the livestock industry," said Ronald D. Green, national program leader for food animal production at the Department of Agriculture.
The tests, which look at regions of the genome associated with tenderness, fat content and the ease with which an animal gains weight, sets the stage for labeling and even product branding based on specific guarantees of tenderness and other qualities.
The use of technology to change the nature of food -- whether through selective breeding or the development of hybrid plants -- is not a new idea. But the explosion of genetic information over the past seven or eight years has moved the process onto a new plane.
While methods like cloning or genetic modification raise ethical issues, MetaMorphix's strategy sidesteps those sorts of problems. The company isn't out to change nature, only pick which cows will taste the best. It also aims to guide ranchers about which pairs of animals should mate, a process that currently hinges on family traditions and a cowboy or farmer's judgment.
"A lot of them say, 'Joe is a good cow man. He has good cow sense. He learned it from his dad,' " said Stewart Bauck, head of the livestock production unit for Merial Ltd., which is marketing three cattle gene tests. Based in Duluth, Ga., Merial is a partnership between Sanofi-Aventis and Merck & Co. "It's lore and legend. But it's going to be replaced by a far less romantic tool. I don't care whether some heifer looks good or whether she kicked you in the knees. We can tell you what she's really going to do."
Cargill, MetaMorphix's partner and the nation's second-largest beef processor, is in the final stages of analyzing the tests before marketing them to other feedlot operators and cattle breeders. MetaMorphix has already licensed swine testing technology to a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., which is using it to help breed designer pigs to sell to pork producers. It will also sell pig semen. MetaMorphix has yet to make a deal on chickens.
While MetaMorphix executives say prices for the test haven't been worked out, similar tests that have come on the market recently sell for about $45. There are 36 million cattle processed in the United States every year.
Though facing competition from two other companies marketing genetic cattle tests, MetaMorphix in recent months has emphasized that it is preparing to go public. The company hired a new chief financial officer, Thomas P. Russo, who has guided other firms through the process.
MetaMorphix, founded in 1994, was a rather unremarkable biotech until 2002, when chief executive Edwin C. Quattlebaum began eyeing the animal genomics division at Celera Genomics Group in Rockville. Celera, guided by J. Craig Venter, had been celebrated for mapping the human genome, while more quietly mapping the genomes of cows, pigs, and chickens. But in 2002, Celera abandoned its business model of selling access to genetic information.
Quattlebaum struck a deal with Celera officials to co-develop tests based on the genetic information of the animals. But at the last minute, Celera backed out. Quattlebaum persisted.
"I said, 'If you guys don't want to fund it, why don't we license the technology and I'll find funding myself," Quattlebaum said. "I guess they felt that was the easier way, because they made the deal."
MetaMorphix got access to the genetic information, Celera became the firm's largest shareholder, and Quattlebaum set out to raise money to fund development of the tests. As of last month, he had raised about $85 million, including $10 million from a co-development deal with Cargill, which specifies that the beef company share equally in profits. MetaMorphix employs about 70 people.
MetaMorphix entered the cattle business on the heels of mounting concern about the quality and consistency of tenderness in U.S. beef, with a five-year study by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association finding wide variations. USDA inspectors grade beef after slaughter: Prime is the best, choice is second best, followed by select grade. But it is a subjective process performed by individual graders relying mostly on observation and the reputation of certain breeds, like Angus.
Quattlebaum and Cargill officials said their tests open the door for precise labels guaranteeing the quality of beef to steakhouses and grocery stores.
"The integrity of the beef would be very clear" in grocery stores, where consumers today can only look at a piece of meat, poke it, and apply their own inexact judgment, said Mark Klein, a Cargill spokesman. "You could make certain statements about the quality."
But beef experts say the true value of the tests could come before consumers even fire up the grill.
At the breeding level, instead of ranchers relying on visual assessments of bulls before matching them with their mates, the tests would indicate the best pairings. Cattle with desirable traits for tenderness, for example, could be matched together to create customized breeding lines.
MetaMorphix executives say their tests will more likely be used -- at least at the outset -- in feedlots, where cattle live and gorge for several months before slaughter. Currently, most cattle are fed the same steady diet, primarily of high-energy feed rations like corn kernels, milo, and soybeans, that increase muscle, fat and marbling of meat.
If feedlot operators know that certain cattle will never yield prime meat no matter what they're fed, the cattle can be given cheaper rations of grass, hay, and corn stalks. They might even feed the desired cattle longer to fatten them further.
Cargill plans to spend the next six months examining different animal groupings, trying to determine how much extra value it can squeeze from each animal. Understanding that will help set the target price for sale of the tests, company executives said.
In the meantime, two other companies have already started selling similar genetic tests -- Merial and Bovigen Solutions LLC, a Harahan, La., company founded by a New Orleans businessman who owns an Angus ranch. They were able to jump into the business after several public and private organizations published their own maps of the cattle genome.
Bauck, the head of the livestock unit for Merial, acknowledged that only a "minute percentage" of the industry had adopted the technology. Merial has sold most of its tests to premier breeders.