In the early 1990s, the beef industry stood at a crossroad. Beef demand was on a continuing decline as other protein sources were vying and taking more of the consumer’s dollar. It was evident that something needed to be done to reverse the trend.
That’s when the industry began focusing more research into what consumers thought about beef and what they wanted, through studies like the Beef Quality Audit and the National Beef Tenderness Survey. What those types of studies found is that product defects were an issue costing everyone in the beef production chain. Also, tenderness was an issue since one in four steaks resulted in a bad eating experience. In order to reverse the demand trend, the industry needed to make dramatic changes and provide consumers what they wanted.
“The consumer is so far removed from the day-to-day challenge of managing the ranch or feedyard that producers tend to fall into the trap that they’re in the cattle business, not the beef business,” says Mark Thomas, vice president of global marketing for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “But all the money in the beef industry comes from the consumer. If consumers are not willing to pay more money for the same amount of product, then we have the demand curve going in the wrong direction.” Now we’re seeing that trend change as the industry becomes more consumer-driven.
Meeting consumer needs
Wayne Purcell, an agricultural economist at Virginia Tech, notes that the increases in demand over the past decade were in response to quality control, guaranteed tenderness, consistent performance and new offerings of convenient products.
Those new convenient product offerings are due to a changing trend among consumers. In the late 1990s, there seemed to be a growing trend in takeout food versus preparing meals at home. That seems to be reversing. The Food Marketing Institute Trends’ survey found that in 2001, 74 percent of consumers ate home-cooked meals three or more times a week. That number increased to 85 percent in 2002 and dropped to 82 percent in 2003. For this year, the figure remained fairly constant with 84 percent of meals being reported as cooked in the home.
Some feel that part of the increase in home-cooked meals is due to the increase in convenience food products that simplify meal preparation. And convenience is the big push behind much of the research into new beef product development.
One program, the value-cuts program, began from a muscle-profiling study, which identified different muscles and their characteristics. The value-cut program took those muscles characteristics to create more value in those cuts that were not achieving their true value potential, and dollars were being lost. For example, Betty Hogan, NCBA director for new-product marketing, says that the shoulder clod is a muscle that contains high-quality, tender meat. But that was being lost because retailers and meat cutters didn’t really know what do with it.
“There are really good cuts in the shoulder, and they are easy to harvest. The petite tender is an example—looks like a pork tenderloin,” she explains. “In one year’s time, between spring 2003 and spring 2004, the price for that particular cut of meat when it was left on the shoulder clod to the point of when it was being pulled off by the packer and sold wholesale went up over $2 per pound. There’s about 13⁄4 pounds to 21⁄2 pounds of it per animal depending on carcass size. If you do the math, you’re talking $3.50 more per head from identifying and utilizing that one cut.”
She says another value cut they identified was the flat-iron steak from the chuck roast. When that particular cut was separated and utilized, it increased in value to about $1.50 to $1.70 per pound. Those are significant dollars back to the industry.
In addition to identifying underutilized beef cuts, check-off dollars have been used to help create new, convenient beef products. “The checkoff serves as a catalyst to help private industry see the opportunity,” says Steve Wald, manager of new-product marketing at NCBA. “But then private industry has invested billions to develop and market new products.”
Tyson Foods is one of those companies working to develop value-added meat products. “Right now, we’re in the process of developing a new line of convenient frozen steaks and pork chops,” says Tyson senior product manager Mike Stout. “We want to create a product that is the perfect steak that retains its quality regardless of how it is cooked.” He says they hope to change the way consumers serve steak and move it away from weekends or special-occasion use to make it an everyday serving occasion.
“We believe there’s tremendous opportunity to add value to beef products,” says Mr. Stout. “I believe in three to four years, Tyson will build this category and create demand that will not only impact the cutout, but also add more value to the carcass.”
Mr. Wald also points out that several other companies are working to develop value-added products. Advance Brands is one of the smaller companies with its own research and development and is currently introducing burger bits. “This is a miniature burger that includes cheese and bacon which could be used for more than just little sandwiches but also as appetizers,” he explains.
Areas of improvement
One area in particular that continues to be a problem is differentiation in carcass size.
“Consider if you were in the car-manufacturing business and you had a subcontractor that made doors and every shipment of doors were different sizes. But you were trying to put those doors on the same size car,” explains Mr. Thomas. “Now consider that you’re in the meat-cutting business and you’re getting subprimals in the same box that are different sizes. Yet you’re trying to produce a consistent-size cut for the foodservice operator or retailer.”
Beyond consistency, tenderness also remains a concern. However, J.O. Reagan, NCBA vice president of research and knowledge management, says that the last tenderness study showed a 20 percent increase in tenderness between 1990 and 1999. He says they are getting ready to do another tenderness survey in January to find out about the progress made. He believes that tenderness has probably improved since 1999.
Part of the reason for the improvement is the education on injection-site blemishes and making producers aware of keeping injections out of the muscle, particularly the top sirloin.
Another change deals with chill time. “In the 1990s, packers were still using a rapid-chill and cut system where they would harvest animals and start fabricating within 18 to 26 hours,” explains Dr. Reagan. “Today, most packers will harvest cattle but will not fabricate until 37 to 48 hours postmortem. That slower chilling has made a major change in tenderness.”
In addition, changes in genetics and more awareness of carcass traits have improved not only tenderness, but the overall quality of beef. “I think producers are going to have challenges staying current when looking at the genetic technology that is out there. We’re talking about developing a good producer-education program so that producers have the opportunity to learn more about what genomic technology is available and how best to use that.”
Holding strong into the future
Beef consumers and their needs are constantly evolving. That requires an industry that’s able to evolve and meet their needs. One good example is the growing segment of the population, the retiring baby boomers. “This group will have a significant amount of disposable income, and as they work toward retirement, their dietary and eating patterns will change,” points out Mr. Thomas.
Food companies, like Tyson Foods, recognize these evolving changes, but see great potential in value-added beef products. “We recognize, as most in the industry do, that beef as a protein is underutilized or undervalued in the value-added chain,” says Mr. Stout. “We’re working to offer new ideas and solutions to everyday challenges consumers have when preparing and serving beef products.”