If a working mom, or a working dad, could prepare a hot, delicious dinner of beef brisket, pot roast or hamburgers in less time than it takes to set the table, would they do it? They would and they do, according to HEB Grocery Co. vice president Steve Harper, who’s stores use a variety of cooked, microwavable items to add value to beef in the retail case.

Value-added retail beef products offer great potential for improving beef demand and cattle prices. But before Mr. Harper or other retailers can market these products they need a consistent and predictable supply of beef that meets high-quality specifications.

Currently, inconsistencies and quality defects limit new product development and growth of the value-added market for beef. That message became clear during the Beef Quality Forum broadcast Aug. 18. The forum, sponsored by Pharmacia & Upjohn Animal Health, was broadcast via satellite to 41 sites nationwide.

Last month, Drovers summarized the comments of three of the forum participants, representing the packing industry and veterinary science. This article presents some key points that Mr. Harper made during his presentation and those of Colorado State University meat scientist Gary Smith.
Steve Harper - vice president, meat and seafood marketing, procurement and product development, HEB Grocery Co., San Antonio, Texas

"If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got," Mr. Harper says. So in an effort to reverse the trend of beef’s declining market share, HEB is doing things differently. Part of that change is developing and marketing products that offer consumers more convenience than traditional fresh beef cuts.

The company sells its own brand of fully cooked briskets and pot roasts for the microwave and recently introduced cooked, microwavable hamburgers. Each item is tender, juicy and quick to prepare in the microwave without any "warmed over" flavor. The hamburger label tells customers they can receive double their money back if the product is not as good as any burger they have cooked themselves on the grill. Upon introduction of the cooked hamburger product, HEB reached it’s first-year sales goal in just eight weeks.

The grocery chain also offers a variety of seasoned raw products, such as sliced, marinated fajita meat and marinated ribs and eye of round. In sub-primal fabrication, HEB uses an innovative approach to provide cuts that fit the market, including cuts such as the Milanesa and the Agujas, from the round and chuck, which appeal to the Hispanic market. "We want to add value in every category," Mr. Harper says.

One of the most encouraging aspects of value-added beef sales is that it has not come at the expense of other, traditional beef products. Sales of raw briskets, for example, actually increased in HEB stores by around 15 percent during the same time the company introduced pre-cooked briskets. Value-added beef sales replaced other meats or came from customers who would not have purchased meat at all.

But before he can market consistent beef items to his customers, Mr. Harper stresses that he needs a supply of raw material that is consistent across multiple variables. These include:

  • Size: The industry needs to eliminate the "rabbits and elephants," he says, to produce cuts of the appropriate size - no 20-inch "ribeyes for two." Producers must select genetics and control and compress the calving period so that size management can take place. "I need 5.5-pound briskets to meet my price point for a value-added product," Mr. Harper says.
  • Yield: Mr. Harper would like to see seam-fat scores, similar to grade and yield scores for carcasses, so he knows what to expect. To improve consistency, producers should feed cattle to individual end points.
  • Elimination of bruising and scarring, resulting from mounting, handling, loading and shipping. n Color management: Producers need to select cattle for calm dispositions, then manage them in ways that reduce stress. " Dark cutters," he says, "we simply don’t take them."
  • Palatability and tenderness: The industry needs to manage genetics for palatability, match implants to animal genetics, control injection practices and improve animal health. Citing research linking feedyard sickness with reduced beef quality, Mr. Harper says, "If it goes to the hospital pen more than once, I don’t want it."

To reach these goals, the beef industry needs to become "specification driven." Industry segments need to learn to manage the entire beef-production process as one business, using mutually developed specifications. They need, Mr. Harper says, to share what they know and become excited, not intimidated, by knowledgeable partners.
Gary Smith - Professor of Animal Science, Monfort Endowed Chair, Colorado State University

The beef industry has taken some significant steps toward improving beef quality, but we have a lot of work left to do.
Between the 1991 National Beef Quality Audit and the follow-up study in 1995, the industry made progress in two areas - fewer injection-site lesions and better availability of closely trimmed beef. The mix of quality grades actually got worse, Dr. Smith says, cuts became heavier and palatability declined. Other areas saw little change.

Like the 1991 study, the 1995 National Beef Quality Audit detailed the top concerns of packers, purveyors, restaurateurs and retailers. Their consensus list included: low overall uniformity and consistency; low palatability; insufficient marbling; inadequate tenderness; excess external, seam and trimmings fat; excess weights; and frequent hide problems.

The average cost of inconsistencies such as brands, mud on hides, carcass or offal condemnations, injection site lesions, bruises, dark cutters and parasite damage adds up to $47.10 per head. Lost opportunities such as increasing red-meat yield, enhancing taste and tenderness, improving management and controlling weight add up to another $137.83 per head loss.

The audit provided a comparison of what customers want, in terms of grading percentages, compared with what producers supply. The table below illustrates the gap that existed in 1995.

Dr. Smith outlined industry strategies and producer tactics for improving quality, consistency, competitiveness and market share. Industry strategies:

  • Assist producers to identify cattle that fit consistency expectations.
  • Make close-trimmed the industry standard.
  • Develop ID systems for data and information feedback.
  • Develop cattle-pricing systems that reward zero-deficiencies and customer satisfaction.
  • Encourage breeding systems that emphasize production, palatability and profit.
  • Identify and employ processes to assure customer and consumer satisfaction and loyalty.

    Producer tactics:
  • Identify genetic lines that marble and maximize yield.
  • Eliminate side brands and multiple brands.
  • Remove horns.
  • Control parasites.
  • Improve red-meat yield.
  • Set a target for carcass weight between 600 and 800 pounds.
  • Set targets for quality grades.
  • Improve transportation and handling.
  • Eliminate intramuscular injections.
  • Encourage producers to measure value traits.
  • Eliminate genetics and management that erode palatability.
  • Encourage premiums and discounts on true value.
  • Develop a futures contract for closely trimmed boxed beef.

During the telephone question-and-answer portion of the forum, a caller asked what to do in a case where cattle buyers will not provide performance or carcass data back to the cow-calf producer. Texas A&M University animal scientist Bill Mies, who served as moderator, responded. "You should change the people you’re selling to," he said. Producers, he explained, need to work with people who understand how information exchange can help them improve their cattle, and that those improvements will benefit everyone in the production and marketing chain.