Taste is king for beef consumers

Farm Forum

Despite tighter budgets and busier lives, it’s not price or convenience that tops the list for deciding whether to buy beef – it’s taste. The most recent Consumer Beef Index, based on a Beef Checkoff-sponsored survey, showed an impressive 88% of consumers polled said when choosing between beef, chicken, pork and fish, a great tasting product was very or extremely important.

Mark McCully, vice president of production for Certified Angus Beef LLC, said that’s good news for cattle producers.

“Not only is beef already America’s favorite protein,” he said at the recent Illinois Cattle Feeders Meeting in Oregon, Ill. “But we know what it takes to make sure consumers get the consistently delicious product they expect.”

He explained that the characteristics of beef that affect palatability are flavor, juiciness and tenderness, and those are primarily reflected in the USDA quality grade of each carcass. The main difference between a Select, Choice or Prime stamp comes down to marbling, which is a highly heritable trait.

“That’s why it’s so important to stay focused on increasing marbling in our cattle,” McCully said. “It’s still our best strategy to meeting consumer demands for our end product.”

Management factors like health, pre-feedlot nutrition, disposition, the use of growth technologies and days on feed also affect quality grade, he said, so utilizing best practices throughout the animal’s lifecycle is another way to increase the odds of a favorable rating.

The annual Power of Meat survey released in February identified some notable trends in meat preparation.

McCully said 65% of consumers surveyed cook beef at home once to three times per week. Beef was only slightly edged out by chicken in the frequency category. While slightly fewer home cooks are incorporating meat into their meals three times per week or more (69%, down from 74% in 2012), he said the lower number likely reflects fewer meals being cooked at home overall.

“Regardless,” he said, “cattlemen need to stay focused on making sure those beef meals, whether served once or seven times a week, are a great experience every time.”

He said where consumers get their preparation advice is also changing, at least among the younger crowd. While 50% of home cooks 65 and older still consult an old-fashioned cookbook, overall people are turning to the Web, using online recipes, food manufacturer sites and YouTube.

That increased media presence brings not only answers, but questions, too. Today’s information-driven consumer wants a myriad of details before they make any meat purchase. Is it safe? Wholesome? Fresh? Local? How were the live animals handled? Were Beef Quality Assurance principles adhered to? What about hormones and antibiotics? How was the meat handled and packaged?

Many challenges lie ahead in the beef industry, but with them come opportunities. And as long as producers strive to raise better quality cattle, McCully said, they’ll be armed to face those challenges head-on – and make sure their product ends up on dinner tables across the country several times each week.