U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Date of this Version


Document Type



Published in Meat Science 74 (2006) 34–43. DOI:10.1016/j.meatsci.2006.04.025


Tenderness has been repeatedly reported as the most important quality aspect of meat. However, a number of studies have shown that a significant portion of retail meat can be considered tough. As a consequence, a significant consumer segment is willing to pay a premium for guaranteed tender meat. However, apart from measuring the shear force, there is no reliable method to predict tenderness. Most of the branded meat programs therefore attempt to ensure eating quality by controlling some of the factors that affect tenderness.

Meat tenderness is determined by the amount and solubility of connective tissue, sarcomere shortening during rigor development, and postmortem proteolysis of myofibrillar and myofibrillar-associated proteins. Given the effect of postmortem proteolysis on the muscle ultrastructure, titin and desmin are likely key substrates that determine meat tenderness.

A large number of studies have shown that the calpain proteolytic system plays a central role in postmortem proteolysis and tenderization. In skeletal muscle, the calpain system consists of at least three proteases, µ-calpain, m-calpain and calpain 3, and an inhibitor of µ- and m-calpain, calpastatin. When activated by calcium, the calpains not only degrade subtrates, but also autolyze, leading to loss of activity. m-Calpain does not autolyze in postmortem muscle and is therefore not involved in postmortem tenderization. Results from a number of studies, including a study on calpain 3 knockout mice, have shown that calpain 3 is also not involved in postmortem proteolysis. However, a large number of studies, including a study on µ-calpain knockout mice, have shown that l-calpain is largely, if not solely, responsible for postmortem tenderization. Research efforts in this area should, therefore, focus on elucidation of regulation of lcalpain activity in postmortem muscle. Discovering the mechanisms of µ-calpain activity regulation and methods to promote µ-calpain activity should have a dramatic effect on the ability of researchers to develop reliable methods to predict meat tenderness and on the meat industry to produce a consistently tender product.