Episode 399: Can You Patent a Steak?

Aug 9, 2017

Note: This episode originally ran in 2012.

Tony Mata is a meat inventor; his job is figuring out new things to do with meat. We first talked to Mata when he had discovered a new steak — a novel way to cut up a chunk of beef that otherwise wasn't worth much. Mata was so excited about his discovery that he wanted to patent it.

This raises a basic question: Can you patent a steak?

On today's show, we talk to Mata. We visit the workshop of Gene Gagliardi, the inventor of Steak-Umm and KFC's popcorn chicken. And we try to figure out what meat inventors tell us about patents and innovation.

Also: Here's a video of Gene Gagliardi cutting chicken:

Music: "Nerd Disco," "Lift me Higher," and "Crash Landing." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Hey, it's Jacob Goldstein. Just a quick note - this show originally ran in 2012. We are rerunning it today with a little update at the end. Here's the show.

TONY MATA: My name is Antonio. I go by Tony Mata, M-A-T-A. I am a meat scientist.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

Tony Mata also describes himself as a meat geek. But really, I think the guy's an inventor. He tries to invent new cuts of meat, which he says is a weird creative process. He'll take out a chunk of meat and try to see it in a new way.

MATA: I study it from this angle, from that angle - maybe throw it up in the air and catch it again, maybe play with it in a strange way. OK? And then I leave it alone.

KESTENBAUM: Until an idea comes to him. And recently, Tony Mata made what he thinks is a big, big discovery. He says he has discovered a new steak, which is surprising really. I mean, cattle have been domesticated for something approaching 10,000 years. There are textbooks laying out cow anatomy in detail, all 500-some muscles. And somehow in there, Tony Mata says he has discovered something new, something delicious and, for now at least, top secret.

What is the name of the muscle the steak comes from?

MATA: I cannot share that with you.

KESTENBAUM: Can you say what part of the cow it comes from?

MATA: I would rather not.

KESTENBAUM: Rather not because he is in the process of applying for a patent. This got a lot of attention on the Internet, mostly along the lines of, that's ridiculous. You can't patent a steak.

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWRENCE MAU YIP WONG, VON HEMINGWAY AND WILLIAM RIDDIMS' "LIFT ME HIGHER"))

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, can you patent a steak?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAWRENCE MAU YIP WONG, VON HEMINGWAY AND WILLIAM RIDDIMS' "LIFT ME HIGHER")

GOLDSTEIN: So Tony Mata raises this question about patenting cuts of meat. And when you look into it, it turns out there are actually lots of people who have gotten meat patents - or at least there are a few people who have gotten meat patents. And David, last week, you and I - we went and visited a guy who is kind of a big deal in this weird little world of meat patents. His name's Gene Gagliardi. He's 82 years old, and he works in an old house in rural Pennsylvania, across the street from a cornfield.

GENE GAGLIARDI: Hi.

KESTENBAUM: Hi, are you Gene?

GAGLIARDI: Glad to meet you.

KESTENBAUM: Nice to meet you.

GOLDSTEIN: You walk into the house, and you see this coffee table with this huge pile of trade magazines. And on the top of the pile, there is one called Meating Place - that's M-E-A-T-ing place. And on the cover of this magazine is Tony Mata, the guy we just talked to who says he's discovered a new steak. And it turns out, Gene talks to Tony Mata all the time. They had actually just talked on the phone.

Did he confide in you? Did he tell you where the cut is in the animal?

GAGLIARDI: I guessed it (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: You guessed it?

GAGLIARDI: I guessed it, yeah. But no, he wouldn't tell me where it was from.

KESTENBAUM: How did you guess it?

GAGLIARDI: He described the muscle, what it was like. And I knew where that muscle came from.

KESTENBAUM: Gene told us that he started cutting meat when he was 6 years old. His dad was a butcher. They had a family business. And his dad used to play this very game with him. He would lay out random pieces of meat for Gene and say, tell me what part of the animal that one came from.

GOLDSTEIN: Gene grew up and took over the business from his father. They sold hamburgers and other meat to restaurant chains in the Philadelphia area. But, you know, they weren't really selling anything special. It was basically the same thing everybody else was selling. And by the late 1960s, the family business was on the verge of going under. And this problem, this threat to the business, it's actually what drove Gene to become an inventor.

GAGLIARDI: Yeah, I'm lying in bed saying, how am I going to save this company? I thought, I've got to come up with something innovative, something unique that nobody else has.

KESTENBAUM: Gene starts to think about the Philly cheesesteak, which is really, really popular in Philadelphia. But the sandwich is not perfect.

GAGLIARDI: The meat was so tough that you couldn't chew through it.

KESTENBAUM: You'd end up accidentally pulling the meat out from the bread when you tried to take a bite. So Gene wanted to solve this problem. And it led him to his first big meat idea.

GAGLIARDI: It came to me at 3 o'clock in the morning. So I got up out of bed and went to the plant and tried it.

GOLDSTEIN: The meat in a Philly cheesesteak, it's made of these thin kind of sheets of beef. And Gene - what he wanted to do was he wanted to make those sheets less tough, make them easier to chew. And his idea for doing that, it was really complicated. He put the meat through a grinder, then he put it through the grinder again. Then he mixed it, and he put it in a mold. He froze it. He tempered it. He sliced it. And finally, he cooked it and ate it to see if it was any good.

GAGLIARDI: It tasted great. (Laughter)I said wow, we're going to make it (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: He just needed one more thing. He needed a good name. And he was obsessed with this. So he went on a road trip with his friends. And it was all he could talk about. One of his friends, whose name was Jigs, was in the backseat getting drunk on bourbon.

GAGLIARDI: He said, I am so sick and tired of hearing you coming up with a name. He says, [expletive] 'em (ph). Stick 'em with steak-um (ph). So when he said steak-um, I picked up on it. And I kept saying it for 600 miles, all the way home - steak-um, steak-um, steak-um.

GOLDSTEIN: And so Steak-Umm was born. It not only saved Gene's family company, it blew up. It became a huge hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Well, here it is. At 16 slices per package, it's finally time to tell the neighbors you're having steak tonight - Steak-Umm, America's favorite sliced steak.

KESTENBAUM: These were sold in grocery stores from Puerto Rico to Hawaii. I mean, I remember them very fondly from my childhood. We used to eat them in particular at my friend John's (ph) house after school. You could fry them up really quickly. That was their great advantage. The TV ad for it - I remember the tagline was something like, you can Steak-Umm in the north; you can Steak-Umm in the South. But the best thing of all is when you Steak-Umm in your mouth. I'm not making this up.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm cringing, David. I don't even know what that means. What does that even mean?

KESTENBAUM: I don't know. I never thought about what it meant. It meant I would really like a Steak-Umm.

GOLDSTEIN: All right, so in 1980, Gene sold what had used to be the little family business for $20 million. This made it clear; there was lots of money to be made in meat inventions.

KESTENBAUM: Gene went on to invent all kinds of other things to do with meat. In fact, on the wall behind him as he's telling us the Steak-Umm story are all these picture frames. And in the frames are patent after patent after patent, dozens of them from different countries. There's one for method of making a food product from the thigh of a bird. Gene sold that idea to KFC back in the 1990s, and it became popcorn chicken.

GOLDSTEIN: And we should say here - Gene is not actually patenting the meat itself. Obviously, he did not invent the meat. He's inventing a method of cutting meat. And, you know, when we step back and think about patents, I feel like we usually think about patents as being all about technology - right? But at their core, patents are about encouraging and protecting new, useful ideas. And, yeah, those ideas can come from some 16-year-old trying to make a genius new iPhone app in his bedroom. But they can also come from an 82-year-old guy in a converted garage, trying to figure out a better way to cut chicken.

KESTENBAUM: Like any good backyard inventor, Gene Gagliardi has turned the garage into a workshop. There's a big industrial fridge full of meat. And he pulls out a chicken, starts cutting it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIFE BEING SHARPENED)

GOLDSTEIN: A lot of patents are trying to solve a problem in the world. And Gene says right now, there is a problem in the chicken world. Wings are really popular right now - you know, like, Buffalo chicken wings. You can eat them at the bar with a beer. But there are only two wings per chicken. Drumsticks, on the other hand, are not so popular right now.

GAGLIARDI: They can't give drumsticks away.

GOLDSTEIN: So Gene's trying to figure out a way to make a drumstick more like a wing. He makes some cuts on this drumstick. And he actually asks us not to photograph what he's doing 'cause he doesn't have a patent on it yet. And then - voila - the drumstick has become what he calls a triple dipper. It's a chicken leg cut so that there are three little strips of meat coming out from it, and it can stand up kind of like a tripod.

KESTENBAUM: And I have to say, looking at this, it does not seem revolutionary. I mean, I get that the Steak-Umm was really complicated. But, I mean, this is just cutting up a chicken leg. Really, you know, can you get a patent on this? A patent is a very powerful thing. If I get a patent, I get a monopoly. It says only I can do this thing. Anyone else who wants to do it, they have to pay me, or they have to ask my permission. And I have this power for 20 years. And most of our laws are trying to do the opposite of this. Most of our laws try to encourage competition. This one grants you a monopoly. So where do you draw the line? What deserves a patent, and what does not deserve a patent?

GOLDSTEIN: This is a key question, the central question really. And ultimately, it's not a question for a guy cutting up a chicken. It's a question for that guy's lawyer. And Gene's lawyer turns out to be a semiretired guy named Les Kasten in Philadelphia. We called him up, and he told us his favorite patent that he wrote for Gene describes this way where you cut up a hot dog into little strips and then you bread it and then you deep fry it and you kind of wind up with a cross between french fries and a corn dog.

LES KASTEN: I like the frank fries patent.

KESTENBAUM: What can I search for here? I'm in Google Patents.

KASTEN: Method of cutting an elongated meat product or something like that.

KESTENBAUM: Les told us that patent law is written with the default being to grant the patent. Your idea just has to satisfy three criteria - one, has to be a new idea -can't be something that's already been patented or discovered before; two, it can't be obvious; and three, it has to have some use. Basically, unless there's some good reason, the patent office is supposed to give you a patent.

KASTEN: That's the law. That's the way the law is written.

KESTENBAUM: It errs on the side of saying, OK, I don't know what use this would be, but no one's done it before and it's not totally obvious, so here's your patent.

KASTEN: Yeah. Essentially, yes. There is a provision in there that says it must be useful. And I've seen some very unusual patents in my lifetime that I would say, gee, I wonder what's useful about that.

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter).

KASTEN: But I mean, there's patents for people for walking dogs while holding onto a leash on a bicycle. There's patents for dumping the remains of a cremated body from an aircraft. I mean, there's some very unusual patents.

GOLDSTEIN: Have you ever applied for a patent for Gene and had it rejected or challenged where they did say - wait, this is obvious. Anyone who knows their way around meat could think of this on their own.

KASTEN: Yes. There was one in particular where an examiner challenged it, and it was one of the chicken wing patents.

KESTENBAUM: The patent examiner basically said sorry, your idea - it is too similar to an existing chicken wing patent. So Gene and Les took some chicken wings down to the patent offices in Virginia to make their case to the board of appeals. They walked into this room at a special designated time. There were three senior examiners sitting on a kind of raised bench in front of a table. Les and Gene sat on the other side, and Gene put on this show like a TV chef.

KASTEN: He brought a cooler with a half a dozen chicken wings in there. He brought his knife and his steel. He brought his chef hat and his chef jacket. He got all dressed up, played the part. I was down there in my suit and tie. And he started out sharpening his knife. And he took the board - took the cutting board and cut the chickens. And I took them over and held them up right in front of the noses of the three board members.

KESTENBAUM: And what was their reaction?

KASTEN: Well, they were a little squeamished. They looked at it. I pointed out the differences. I had them side by side. And they accepted it, and we got the patent issued.

KESTENBAUM: This is sort of a strange thing about the patent process for me. I mean, there is some examiner who has to look and say, OK, that's not obvious. You can patent it. And, you know, it's kind of hard to know what's obvious. I mean, that hot dog patent for cutting up and frying a hot dog, you know, I can do that at home. But if I did, I'd be violating his patent.

KASTEN: You'd be an infringer.

KESTENBAUM: Will you come after me?

KASTEN: Typically, you don't go after an individual.

KESTENBAUM: But I would technically be breaking the law.

KASTEN: Absolutely.

KESTENBAUM: Wow.

KASTEN: If you did it that way - if you did it the way it's spelled out in detail in that patent application.

KESTENBAUM: But, you know, there's - I'm probably breaking the law every day in my kitchen then. Right?

KASTEN: Well, you may or may not be. You know, not everything is patented.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. So David, yeah, technically you would be infringing on these patents if you did this. But, I mean, I have to say I don't know if it really matters. I mean, Gene Gagliardi doesn't care what you do in your kitchen. What he cares about is what big companies do - right? He patents these things so that he can go and sell his ideas to big companies. And if some big company comes along and steals his idea, yeah, maybe he'll sue them. And Les Kasten says this is how patents are supposed to work. They're supposed to keep companies from stealing an idea some 82-year-old guy had in his garage. And having this patent protection is going to encourage Gene to keep coming up with new ideas.

KASTEN: Now, one might say that cutting a hot dog isn't a great advance, and that may be true. I mean, it's certainly not putting a man on the moon or anything like that. But the way the patent law is, if you will disclose to the public by telling everyone how to do this and getting it printed in this patent, we will give you a limited monopoly - which is, in this country, it's 20 years from the filing date - and when that monopoly is over, anybody in the world can make and use and sell what you've invented.

KESTENBAUM: Do you think we'd have fewer inventors like Gene if there weren't patents?

KASTEN: I think so, yes.

GOLDSTEIN: And we asked Gene about this. And he said, you know, he would probably be working with meat in a world without patents. But he said he wouldn't be able to do it on his own working in a garage. He'd probably have to go take a job with a big company.

KESTENBAUM: And that seems fair and true up to a point. But there is this potentially dangerous thing about the patent system. I mean, it's supposed to encourage innovation, but at some point, patents - they also can hurt innovation. I mean, you may remember the stories Alex Blumberg did here on the show about software patents and about how there are so many software patents for so many completely simple and basic things that everyone in the technology business is worried that they are violating someone else's patents. I mean, Apple has a patent on a device with rounded edges. And in the world of meat, you could imagine some young would-be meat inventor getting discouraged saying, look, Gene Gagliardi's already got all these patents. What is left for me to do? So you know, there's a line somewhere between encouraging people to come up with good, useful ideas and granting patents for anything, which can actually discourage innovation.

GOLDSTEIN: David, I am certainly not a meat expert. I don't even eat all that much meat. I don't know what's obvious and what's not in the meat world. But to go back to the question that we started the show with - can you patent a steak? - I can imagine that if you, say, took some part of a cow that is now being sold as ground beef and you figured out some clever, efficient way to instead cut that part of the cow into steak and nobody's figured that out before, then, you know, maybe that is a legit patent. Every rancher who has a cow - that cow is now worth more money.

KESTENBAUM: In the entire history of our country to date, the government has issued something like 8 million patents for inventions. And it's not like people are running out of ideas, even when it comes to meat. We asked Tony Mata, do you think somewhere in the cow there is another steak hiding that hasn't been found over all these years?

MATA: Well, you know, I've been asked that before. And probably not. However, don't be surprised if three or five years from now, you find me still with the knife in hand, digging, cutting through that fascinating, intriguing carcass that nature gave us. I really enjoy doing it. The odds are not in favor of finding a steak. The odds were not in favor of finding this one either, but we found it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY, DUSTY HENDRIX, JEFFREY W. WADE AND RUBEN AYALA'S "NERD DISCO")

GOLDSTEIN: So that is how we left it with Tony Mata five years ago. We did check back in with him this week in 2017, and we can now reveal the secret of his patented steak. We will do that after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY, DUSTY HENDRIX, JEFFREY W. WADE AND RUBEN AYALA'S "NERD DISCO")

GOLDSTEIN: So a couple updates from Tony Mata - first of all, that patent that he was so secretive about at the start of the show, it has now been published. So the secret is out. We can tell you that the steak comes from the subscapularis muscle. If you want to look it up for yourself to learn more, the patent application is called method of fabricating a steak from subscapularis and product obtained by such method. Tony, as he predicted, is still in the discovery business. When we talked to him this week, he told us his latest project is trying to find a cut of beef that can sort of be like the chicken wing of the cow. You know, he said, people love wings because they're just this, like, tender little appetizer meat. And he thinks he can figure out how to find a cut of beef that is kind of like that.

MATA: I'm looking for the chicken wing of the cow. I'm having a great time, and I think I have found it.

GOLDSTEIN: We asked him where in the cow it comes from. He said his work is not quite done on this one, and he is not yet ready to reveal the secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE PETER FONTI'S "CRASH LANDING")

GOLDSTEIN: You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Today's rerun was produced by our intern, Eduard Saakashvili. If you're looking for something else to listen to, NPR has a new show that is about to launch that I am very excited about. It's called Rough Translation, and it is stories from all over the world. The host is Greg Warner, who used to be NPR's East Africa correspondent. He did a bunch of great shows for PLANET MONEY while he was in Africa. The producer is Jess Jiang, who used to be at PLANET MONEY. So if you like PLANET MONEY and you're interested in the world, check out Rough Translation. You can subscribe now, and the first episode is going to drop in the next few days. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

KESTENBAUM: I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks for listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.