Beef producers often hear that their real customer is the consumer who buys the retail cut or orders the restaurant steak. But if you want your beef available in the cases at Meijer supermarkets, it first needs to satisfy Ray Bazzocco, the chain’s senior vice president for meat and seafood procurement.

Meijer is a large chain of “supercenter” stores located across Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, with $13 billion in total annual sales and $1 billion in meat. Bazzocco says the stores are open 24 hours and take delivery of meat products every day. And Bazzocco, with 40 years of meat cutting and buying experience, knows his beef.

Until a few years ago, Meijer stores sold Select and no-roll beef cuts. Profit margins on the Select products were good, Bazzocco says, but the beef did not provide consistent satisfaction for customers. Now all the beef in the stores is Choice or better. Meijer is the No. 1 Certified Angus Beef retailer in the country and carries other branded lines, including natural beef. 

Each store has a full-service meat department, with fresh-packaged cuts also available. Bazzocco says premium beef offerings have improved customer satisfaction and sales volume significantly. “Consumers want a positive shopping and eating experience,” he says. “They go to stores they can trust.”

Consumers also want more information about where their food comes from, he says, but labeling is not a simple issue. Since country-of-origin labeling became mandatory for seafood, Bazzocco says he has shifted his purchases to a single source for each seafood product to minimize the complexity of labeling requirements.

Bazzocco says the trend toward heavier beef carcasses presents a challenge for retailers. Some cuts have become too large to fit in standard packaging, and, he says, he would like to offer thicker-cut steaks to his customers. As carcasses get bigger, retailers have to cut steaks thinner to keep unit sizes, and prices, acceptable. But thinner steaks, he says, are more difficult to cook to ideal degrees of doneness, resulting in less consumer satisfaction.

Among his customers, Bazzocco says demand is somewhat flat for steaks and roasts, while the real growth is in ground beef, with Meijer’s sales increasing 20 to 30 percent annually. Bazzocco is passionate about ground-beef quality and dislikes the term “hamburger,” which he feels detracts from the image of ground products. “I sell ground chuck, ground round and ground sirloin,” he says, with products ranging up to 96 percent lean and carrying the “Heart Smart” label.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about health and food safety but are confused by mixed messages in the media and misleading food labels, Bazzocco says. “We need clearly labeled products, with attributes clearly defined.” Natural, organic or others can successfully share space in the meat case with conventional beef, but the information needs to be clear to reduce confusion among customers.

Growing numbers of consumers are concerned about hormones and antibiotics, and are willing to pay more for meat from production systems that verify practices and certify that producers did not use the products. When Tyson began labeling its chicken as “All Natural, Raised Without Antibiotics” in June of this year, the product flew out of the meat cases at Meijer stores. Bazzocco says it is one of the most successful new-product introductions he’s seen. 

He stresses that retailers and the industry need to do more to build trust with consumers and educate them that all beef is safe and wholesome.  “I know producers use antibiotics for the right reasons,” he says, “but consumers are the ones who make the decisions. They vote with their wallets.