STILLWATER — When they announced the discovery of the Vegas strip steak last year, Oklahoma State University researchers were tight-lipped about the source of the new cut of beef.
Now that OSU's patent paperwork for the steak is public, anyone with Internet access and a basic understanding of how to cut up a steer can see how it's done.
“There are no more secrets, if you will,” said Jacob Nelson, a meat processing specialist at OSU's Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center.
OSU announced the development of the steak last year, saying only that it came from a long-maligned section of muscle. OSU officials filed a patent application for the technique used to extract the steak in September. That application was posted on the World Intellectual Property Organization's website earlier this month.
According to the patent application, the Vegas strip steak comes from the subscapularis muscle, which lies beneath a cow's shoulder blade.
The muscle used in the steak isn't new, Nelson said — it's always been there on the cow's shoulder. But the beef industry hasn't generally considered it worthy to be sold as a steak, Nelson said. Instead, meat from that area has generally been ground for hamburger or sold as stew meat.
“Steak kind of carries some weight with it,” he said. “You have certain expectations when you call it a steak.”
OSU researchers, along with a chef from David Burke's Primehouse in Chicago, perfected a technique for producing a steak from the muscle that Nelson said is comparable to a boneless strip. The steak is about as tender as a Kansas City strip, Nelson said, and it looks like a typical strip steak once it's on a plate.
Although the steak is on the market, Nelson said Oklahomans aren't likely to see them in supermarket meat counters anytime soon. Meat producers aren't turning out enough Vegas strip steaks to supply both restaurants and grocery stores, he said. When supply is limited, restaurants are generally the first buyers in line, he said.
Although patenting a steak might seem unusual or even impossible, some precedent exists for the idea of protecting certain cuts of meat. Srividhya Ragavan, a patent law expert at the University of Oklahoma School of Law, said because OSU is seeking to patent a set of knife strokes used to produce the steak, the university's patent application stands a good chance of being approved.
U.S. patent law doesn't allow naturally occurring products to be patented. But if a patent seeker can show that the product has been sufficiently isolated, Ragavan said, the patent is more likely to be granted.
Ragavan compared OSU's patent application to another application at the center of a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court heard a challenge Monday against patents for two genes held by Myriad Genetics, a Salt Lake City-based biotech company.
The company argued its patents are valid because the company's researchers isolated the human genes, which they say play a role in the development of breast cancer.
Ragavan said she thinks the outcome of the Myriad Genetics case will likely affect the outcome of OSU's steak patent. The question at the center of the two cases is the same, she said — when a naturally occurring material is isolated from its natural source, is it patentable? And how isolated does that material have to be?
It will now be up to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to decide if OSU has met that threshold.