Kids have no clear preference in OSU beef taste test

January 6, 2009

burger ballot photo by Lynn Ketchum

PORTLAND, Ore. – Children can tell the difference between burgers made from the USDA-purchased commodity beef served in their school lunch program and Northwest-raised beef, but when it comes to preference, they're evenly split, according to taste tests conducted at two grade schools in Portland.

Portland Public Schools asked Oregon State University to conduct the surveys as part of its effort to serve more locally produced food. The school district currently serves beef that the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases from around the country as part of its commodity entitlement program.

But before purchasing the costlier Northwest beef, school officials needed to know if students would even like it and could detect a difference, said Gitta Grether-Sweeney, an assistant director for the school district's nutrition services department. So they consulted someone who understands taste buds: Ann Colonna, the manager of the Sensory and Consumer Program at OSU's Food Innovation Center. Located in northwest Portland, the research center helps develop, test and market edible products made from Northwest commodities.

This fall Colonna asked 96 students in the school named Clark K-8 @ Binnsmead in southeast Portland to taste three similar-looking hamburger patties and identify the one that was different. In some cases, two came from Northwest-raised cattle and the third was from the USDA-supplied beef. In other instances, it was the other way around. Seventy-three of the students correctly identified the patty that was different.

With a difference detected, Colonna moved to the next level: preference. She asked 91 students at Abernethy Elementary in southeast Portland to taste two hamburger patties made from the beef served in the prior taste test.

The students were not told that one was made from Northwest cattle and the other was from the entitlement program. Sitting at tables in the cafeteria, each student received a quarter of a patty in a wheat bun served on a paper plate with the number 372, denoting the commodity beef, and a similar-looking serving on another plate with the number 681, the code for the Northwest one.

After eyeballing, eating, smelling and sometimes even licking the patties, the students then turned to their paper ballots and circled the number of the patty they preferred. Forty-five students preferred the hamburger from Northwest-raised herds while 46 liked the USDA-supplied one best.

Grether-Sweeney said that given that there was not a strong preference for the Northwest patty and because it is more expensive, the district will not be able to serve it on a regular basis.

The USDA commodity burger the district serves costs $17.11 per case (with 140 patties per case) and the particular brand of Northwest-raised beef patties it tested cost $44.85 a case (with 75 patties per case), she said.

She added that Portland Public Schools would still dish up the Northwest patty in all its cafeterias on Jan. 8 as part of its "Local Lunches" program. Under the program, once a month the district serves a meal made entirely of products from Oregon, Washington or northern California.

After the Abernethy students turned in their ballots, Cory Schreiber asked them to describe why they liked the patties they chose. Schreiber, the founder of Portland's Wildwood Restaurant, manages a program called Farm to School for the Oregon Department of Agriculture that aims to put more locally produced food in schools.

"I liked 681 because it had a tiny bit of salt," a boy said.

One girl said she preferred the USDA commodity beef because "it tasted kind of like bacon and the other one was too salty and too dry."

In the taste tests, both patties were cooked in an oven. Because the USDA-purchased one is shipped precooked, that meant it was actually cooked twice. The patties looked similar except that the one from the USDA was a little darker because of the double cooking. The burgers contained 80 percent beef and 20 percent fat. The USDA-supplied patty contained hydrolyzed corn protein, dextrose, salt, flavorings, sodium phosphates and caramel color. Because the Northwest-raised one didn't use any seasonings, Schreiber sprinkled salt on it for a more equal comparison with the salted one from the USDA.

Author: Tiffany Woods
Source: Ann Colonna, Cory Schreiber, Gitta Grether-Sweeney