Not since before the Chicken McNugget was invented has general beef industry optimism been at such a high level. Improving consumer beef demand is the reason, and many cattlemen and industry analysts believe beef's future is looking much brighter as the 21st Century begins.

Meat and seafood industry representatives, however, don't share our enthusiasm for beef. According to a recent "Futures Study" conducted for Meat & Seafood Merchandising magazine by Vance Research Services, members of the meat and seafood industry are much less optimistic about consumer beef demand than other meats.

Vance surveyed more than 250 meat and seafood industry representatives (including 175 retailers and wholesalers) to gauge their attitudes about demand and other trends by the year 2005. Only 25 percent of respondents believe consumer demand for beef will increase 10 percent by 2005, and nearly half (47 percent) believe it will "never occur." About 29 percent believe the 10 percent increase will occur, but it will happen after 2005.

Those same meat industry representatives predict outstanding growth for poultry, and strong growth for seafood and pork over the next 5 years. More than 61 percent believe consumer demand for poultry will increase 10 percent by 2005, and 30 percent said it will occur after 2005. Only 8 percent said it will never occur.

For seafood, 49 percent of survey respondents believe consumer demand will increase 10 percent by 2005, while 35 percent said it would occur after 2005. Fifteen percent said it would never happen.

For pork, nearly 44 percent believe consumer demand will increase 10 percent within 5 years, and 31 percent say it will occur after 2005. Nearly 25 percent said pork demand would never increase 10 percent.

The attitudes of retail and wholesale meat businessmen are, no doubt, shaped by product sales. And for the past two decades they've seen poultry product sales soar while beef has been in decline. Most industry analysts agree that the shift in market share from beef to poultry is largely due to poultry's aggressive production and marketing strategies.

"We've taken a whole lot of the cost out," Larry Higdem, Tyson Foods, says of the poultry industry. "We're the cheapest protein and we have a good tasting product with good values."

Poultry's cost advantage, coupled with a 20-year head-start for its marketing campaign, creates an uphill battle for beef. Recent gains in consumer beef demand are significant, but do not suggest the market share war is turning in beef's favor. On the contrary, poultry marketers probably view beef's recent success only as a minor setback. They'll likely increase their efforts and be tougher competitors.

While it's obvious our industry has made gains with consumers by improving quality and adding convenience to beef products, it's also clear much work remains with our wholesale and retail partners. New efforts to promote changes and improvements in our products should include messages targeted toward meat industry professionals. Their confidence in beef is critical if we hope to continue increasing consumer demand.