New frontiers in beef qualityAmerican consumers want to keep loving beef, but in today’s world of activist attacks, misinformation, outright lies and mixed messages, they might need a little reassurance.

The beef-marketing landscape has changed dramatically since the first National Beef Quality Audit in 1991 focused attention on eliminating defects and other beef-quality concerns. Today’s consumers still demand beef quality — more than ever — and their definition of what constitutes quality continues to evolve.

“Today,” says Bob Giblin, “more goes into shopping bags than just groceries.” Giblin, manager of food-industry communications with Merck Animal Health, says shoppers increasingly want assurances related to sustainability, animal welfare, origin and safety along with their groceries.

Over the past few years, Merck, realizing that as an animal-health company they were in the beef business, set out to learn more about consumers and begin to address their concerns. The company sponsored a two-phase study, first contracting with Just Ask a Woman, a New York-based market-research firm specializing in — you guessed it — women. During this qualitative phase, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with consumers to gauge their perceptions, questions and concerns regarding beef. For the second phase, Merck contracted with the Hartman Group, a Washington-based market-research firm, to quantify shoppers’ priorities and their response to marketing terms and messages.

 Hungry for answers

Tracy Chapman, founder and principal at Just Ask a Woman, says most shoppers do not obsess over negative media coverage of safety, animal-welfare or environmental issues related to beef. They generally trust assurances such as USDA inspection labels, and believe the beef industry has done a good job of addressing some of the physical defects in beef that were a problem earlier. They have questions, rather than concerns.

However, she says people hear about efforts such as “Meatless Mondays” and begin to question whether beef might be bad for their health or for the environment. Animal welfare also is high on the list, Chapman says. Moms want to know that food animals are treated humanely. They’re interested in health and food safety but they also wonder whether or not products labeled as natural, organic or grass-finished are actually better and worth the higher price.

Mostly, she says, moms want quality and value in the food they buy. They don’t want “cheap beef”; they want to feel they receive a good value, for their budget, without compromising on quality.

It is important, though, that someone addresses any questions shoppers have. When anti-meat groups parrot their messages on these points, the industry tends to respond defensively. What we need, Giblin says, is consistent consumer messages showing how beef producers work to minimize environmental impacts and protect animal welfare while producing safe, wholesome, healthy beef at affordable prices.

Fortunately, says John Lundeen, executive director for market research at NCBA, beef producers continue to make strides in providing consumers with the quality they expect. “Quality is a big driver in consumer beef demand, and while expectations are increasing, beef is improving with them,” he says. Consumer perceptions of beef’s taste, value, safety and consistency have trended upward since 2007 in NCBA research, and checkoff-funded programs and other industry messaging have generated results in consumer awareness of beef’s role in a nutritious diet (see table).

New frontiers in beef quality

Challenges remain, however, and Lundeen says researchers and producers still focus on any shortcomings identified in the National Beef Quality Audits, especially in terms of consistency, taste and tenderness. Checkoff-funded research also continues to examine processing factors such as aging, and genetics, where there is huge potential for improving beef quality and consistency in the future.

Power to choose

For many shoppers, Chapman says, appearance equals quality, and the retail store means more than the rest of the production chain. Consumers trust a supermarket that offers an attractive, well-presented selection of meats.

Speaking of selection, she stresses that consumers appreciate and enjoy the choices available, from basic store-brand cuts to natural beef, grass-fed or premium brands. They want the choices to be simple and free of politics. Moms shopping for their families like to feel they are in control, choosing cuts based on their budget, preferences and the occasion.

But those choices are becoming more complicated. Davey McHenry, senior strategic accounts manager with the Hartman Group, says their research indicated 62 percent of moms say it is hard to choose food products because of the mixed messages they receive.

Giblin says that in addition to providing multiple choices, the proliferation of brands in the meat case benefits overall quality. When packers or retailers or other organizations put their brand on retail products, quality control becomes a high priority.

Words matter

Retail meat labels can contribute to the confusion but also help influence consumer perceptions, McHenry says. Many consumers, for example, don’t really understand what “Angus” means, but they associate the term with higher-quality beef. And while many are skeptical about “organic” labels, the term “natural” resonates with many consumers. In the Hartman Group study, 28 percent of respondents purchase natural beef at least half of the time, while 72 percent buy mostly conventional beef or don’t pay close attention to what they buy.

When asked about their impressions of beef production methods in the Hartman study, the largest group of respondents — 64 percent — indicated a very positive or somewhat positive impression of a “family farm,” compared with 51 percent for an “organic farm,” 41 percent for “conventional beef production” and 13 percent for “a factory farm.”

The quantitative effort reinforced results from the qualitative study, which indicated consumers may react favorably to the term “traditional beef” in reference to products from the typical U.S. production system, without additional claims such as natural, grass-fed or a specific breed.

Lundeen notes the role of quality “cues” — words that trigger images of quality for consumers. These include terms such as USDA Choice, breed name, fresh, local or natural.

The name of a cut of beef is a quality cue, Lundeen adds. Consumers respond favorably, for example, to the term “top sirloin.” They recognize it is not the top-of-the line steak cut but believe it is high quality and a good value. The Flatiron Steak, virtually unknown a few years ago, also has climbed the scale of consumer quality rankings. “We need to get more cuts into that category,” Lundeen says.

The majority of beef sold at retail is under store brands, Lundeen says. Once you have a brand, you want to provide quality cues, and the product needs to live up to the label, so retailers are more attentive to procurement specifications and quality control.

As for label information, Chapman says, consumers have an emotional connection to beef and to where it comes from, but they really don’t want extensive information such as traceability to the farm of origin or documentation of every management practice.  They don’t need all the information, but they want transparency. They want to believe they could get information if they did want it.

Based on the results of the Merck-funded studies, the researchers offer several recom-mendations:

1. Provide and deliver “Traditional Beef” message that aligns with the shared beliefs and values of consumers.

      *  Lead with messages about shared values; follow with messages about production practices and products.

      *  Emphasize legacy of safety and promise of quality.

      *  Use cattle-farm family and generational imagery.

2. Reinforce mom’s role as the family’s most trusted gatekeeper and confidence in her own decision-making ability.

      *  Highlight family farmers working hard every day so she can feed her family the same safe, high-quality beef they feed their own families.

      *  Reinforce her confidence in any product choice she makes.

3. Appeal to “thought leader’s” thirst for knowledge.

      *  Provide information about the beef-production process and proven safety measures.

“We need to assure consumers that we share their values,” Giblin says, “and build their trust.” Lundeen agrees, saying in addition to addressing any physical beef-quality issues, “We also need to address the broader definitions of beef quality, in which consumers want beef to be in tune with their belief systems.”