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Researchers at Oklahoma State University made headlines, earlier this year, when they applied to patent a steak. Their application raises the question of what it means to patent meat.

A question Jacob Goldstein with NPR's Planet Money team posed to a prominent meat inventor.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: In the late 1960s, Eugene Gagliardi's family business was in trouble. The company sold hamburgers and other meat to restaurant chains in the Philadelphia area. And within the span of a few months, it had lost several of its biggest customers.

EUGENE GAGLIARDI: 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.

GOLDSTEIN: Gagliardi was thinking about the Philly cheese steak. The sandwich was popular in Philadelphia. But there was a problem.

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

GOLDSTEIN: That meant the meat wasn't something people would buy at the grocery store and cook for their kids. Gagliardi wanted to solve this problem. And it led to his first big meat idea.

GAGLIARDI: It came to me at three o'clock in the morning what I could do with it, so I got up out of bed and went to the plant and tried it.

GOLDSTEIN: His idea was complicated - he put the meat through the grinder a bunch of times, then he mixed it, he put it in a mold, froze it, tempered it, sliced it - and, finally, he cooked it and ate it to see if it was any good.

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

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: Gagliardi had just invented Steak-Umm. And pretty quickly, it blew up. There were TV ads, and people were buying it in grocery stores from Puerto Rico to Hawaii. Eventually, he sold the family business for $20 million.

Today, Gagliardi is 82 years old, and he's still figuring out new things to do with meat. He works in a little house across the street from a corn field in rural Pennsylvania. And like any good backyard inventor, he's turned the garage into a workshop.

In his case, that means there's a kitchen and big industrial fridge full of meat.

(SOUNDBITE OF REFRIGERATOR OPENING)

GOLDSTEIN: Gagliardi pulls out a chicken and starts cutting it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNIVES SHARPENING)

GAGLIARDI: This is a patent, what I'm going to do now.

GOLDSTEIN: It turns out, Gagliardi has lots of patents on a chicken. He's not patenting the meat itself - which, obviously, he didn't invent. He's patenting a way of cutting it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)

GOLDSTEIN: And, yeah, it seems kind of silly to get a patent on a way of cutting meat. But it's not like Gagliardi is going to come sue you if you cut meat a certain way in your kitchen. The patents mean he can work as a small inventor and sell or license his ideas to big companies.

We tend to think of innovation as being all about high-technology. But at its core, innovation means coming up with new, useful ideas. 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 a thigh.

GAGLIARDI: This is the original popcorn chicken.

GOLDSTEIN: Popcorn chicken - also known as Patent 5,266,064 - method of making a food product from the thigh of a bird and product made in accordance with the method. Gagliardi sold this idea to KFC in the late 1990s and it became a huge hit.

Gagliardi has lots more ideas. He says he's made some breakthroughs recently with the drumstick, but those patents are still pending, and he's cagey about the details.

Jacob Goldstein, NPR News.

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