At last year's International Livestock Congress, participants called for the world's major beef countries to pull together to create greater global demand for beef. At the 2000 Congress, held earlier this year, John Huston offered praise for programs targeting that goal. Huston, former Executive Vice President of Consumer Marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, reported on the "best of the best" marketing initiatives conducted in major beef producing countries. Huston called these initiatives elite among many programs that push beef demand drivers, including food safety, consistency and quality, health and nutrition, and convenience.

"Perhaps demand is the most abused and misunderstood concept in the beef business - mistakenly translated into simply per capita consumption, or price, or whether 'I' make a profit," stated Huston. "Recall the definition: Demand is the quantity of a good that people are willing and able to purchase at any market price given the prices and choices of alternative products available to them. This means that beef demand increases if we sell more beef at the same price, or we sell the same amount of beef at higher prices." According to that definition, Huston said many programs are enhancing demand. Some motivating and productive examples come from five countries, which have checkoffs or levies to finance ongoing beef research and promotion programs. The first example comes from Great Britain where, three years ago, newspaper headlines linked beef with BSE, often referred to as mad cow disease. Some have claimed the resulting emotional furor amounted to that country's most costly peace time catastrophe.

"Britain's Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) did it's best at crisis management by handling the media, drawing the industry together for a unified approach, and monitoring consumer behavior," said Huston. "The British consumer felt that steaks and roasts were safe, but ground products were unsafe. Predictably, sales tonnage plummeted." The MLC mounted a marketing campaign to reassure consumers who were still buying beef that production and inspection systems could be trusted. This included a much-publicized beef "quality mark" for ground beef. Launched next was a taste temptation message, with the focus on premium cuts.

Advertising was purposely emotional and built around an ongoing theme.

"Consumers responded well. Those who continued to purchase beef thought British beef was safest, feeling British regulations were tougher now than in other countries. Sales continue to rebound to levels greater than pre-BSE," said Huston. "We are well guided by advice from our British counterparts. Remember that crisis management cannot be taken for granted.

Fully understand the issues by knowing what the science says, and knowing what consumers believe and how that impacts their behavior. Then, develop a sound strategy and implement it effectively." For an example of an initiative to enhance consistency and quality, Huston cited the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) program. A domestic consumers' report card revealed that 38 percent of Australia's consumers thought beef had quality problems. Additional research showed that up to 50 percent of Australian beef sold domestically didn't provide a satisfying eating experience, mainly because consumers were buying the wrong product for their intended purpose.

"The MSA program first took on beef quality, and now helps consumers find the right cut when they shop. It even provides consumers with an overall quality guarantee," offered Huston. "This approach to quality assurance is innovative." Through extensive testing, the MSA program uses beef product quality prediction criteria including breed make-up; carcass pH decline rate; whether carcass was hung using "tenderstretch"; minimum carcass requirements for loin muscle pH, rib fat thickness, maturity and growth rate; marbling; minimization of stress, minimum aging, appropriate cooking method; and visual characteristics such as color.

When all criteria are evaluated, the grader is able to predict eating quality of every muscle from every carcass. Qualifying products receive the MSA label with the quality grade, Tenderness Guaranteed, Premium or Supreme, and the recommended cooking method. Huston says results of the Australian program are encouraging, with growing repeat purchases of labeled products.

Huston credits American know-how for addressing health and nutrition issues.

Helping shift nutrition concerns from a barrier to a driver of beef consumption was the U.S. beef industry's "Parity with Poultry" project. The research showed that lean red beef had "parity" with poultry when included in cholesterol-reducing diets. In addition, a growing number of prominent nutrition researchers were concerned that the good food/ bad food approach to food choices was doing the public a disservice.

"The time was ripe for a fresh look at nutrition public relations," said Huston, who noted that checkoff contractors refined a strategy "to build a scientific base for beef's role in healthful diets, to secure and promote recommendations from thought leaders, and to increase beef consumption through information and education that provides positive nutrition reasons to eat beef. The key message was that beef fits a balanced, healthy diet." A major public relations strike put the message in the popular press, complementing publication of the Nutrition Parity Study results in the Archives of Internal Medicine. A second strike took the form of a "fat" symposium, hosted with Georgetown University, with distinguished researchers shedding light on misperceptions about dietary fat. To round it out, a satellite media tour featured a well-known, award-winning chef demonstrating how to cook with lean beef. In total, the campaign made important, lasting impressions on consumers and thought-leaders during the summer and fall of 1999 to spread the science behind beef's nutritional role.

Also putting beef's positive foot forward, the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Marketing Bureau's public relations effort helped focus the attention of that country's women on beef as an important source of dietary iron. Showing beef as the best source of essential daily iron and the first choice for getting the iron women needed, Huston said direct comparisons were made against spinach, chicken, fish and iron supplements. After the campaign, beef was perceived as the number one source of dietary iron among the target audience.

Convenience was the demand driver targeted by a Canadian beef industry initiative, realizing that a major hindrance to beef buying was the anatomical cut-naming system used in supermarkets. Lack of understanding of names meant consumers often restricted purchases to the few cuts with which they were most familiar. Nor did consumers understand that different cuts possessed different tenderness attributes.

Huston said New Zealand's Beef Information Centre revised meat case nomenclature incorporating both anatomical names and cooking methods. For example, a cut would be labeled as a "Strip Loin Grilling Steak." Meat cases were redesigned to segregate cuts by cooking method and cooking instructions were printed on all packages. Test marketing of the new meat case system yielded more varied purchases of beef cuts, increased sales overall and increased customer satisfaction.

"The U.S. had similar results with reorganization of the retail beef section by cooking method and on-pack cooking instructions," added Huston. "A leading retailer reports it's first six months on the Beef Made Easy program resulted in a 5.7 percent increase in chuck sales, a 16.1 percent boost to value added product sales, and a 26.6 percent increase in sautéing products." To really take beef into the convenience category, more has to be done than just promotion, and more convenient products are needed than just ground beef, Huston said. New products have to be developed, particularly from the under utilized chuck and round. So, the Cattlemen's Beef Board invested producer checkoff dollars in "R & D Ranch", an initiative conducted that has channeled the efforts of new product experts toward development of convenience concepts. In a catalyst role, the R& D Ranch team develops product ideas, then introduces them to appropriate manufacturers capable of carrying the concepts to the consumer as branded products. Heat-and-serve entrees, including precooked pot roasts, marinated beef strips and breaded appetizers are a few examples.

Is it working? Huston said the Demand Index showed an increase in beef demand of about 3.5 percent during 1999, compared to '98. U.S. consumer spending for beef was up 5.5 percent and consumption increased 2.8 percent, with near record beef production of 26.4 billion pounds and record consumer spending of $49.2 billion.

"I'd like to add a thought about evaluation of these and other industry initiatives," concluded Huston. "Improving demand is the responsibility of all beef industry segments. While industry associations and boards like those discussed have a role, they do not own cattle or production and marketing facilities. They can only serve as catalysts for change by conducting research and disseminating information to industry and consumers."