There's one certainty when it comes to gauging consumer preferences and predicting consumer trends: the rules change… constantly. Who would have guessed 25 years ago that consumers would begin to move away from beef in preference of chicken and pork? And, who would have guessed as the new century begins, that beef demand would once again be on the rise. Dr. Gary Smith, a leading meat scientist at Colorado State University, credits much of the turnaround to the efforts of individual producers, the positive influence of checkoff dollars in research and development of new products and food safety, and the efforts of both private industry and the research community.
But Smith will also say that if you thought the last 20 years was an interesting ride, cinch up tight -- the next 10 years will be dynamic times as the industry adopts new technology and becomes even more consumer-focused.
Today, Smith holds CSU's Monfort Endowed Chair for Meat Science, a position he's held since 1990. He's devoted much of his life to helping the industry identify ways of producing a better product.
Before accepting this position in 1990, he served as head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Texas A&M University. He's published nearly 350 full-length articles in scientific journals and written more than 675 other contributions.
He's received numerous awards, served as president of the American Meat Science Association in 1976, and chaired a committee for the National Academy of Sciences that researched effects of irradiation on meat and meat products.
Throughout the span of his career, Smith has also been heavily involved producer organizations, including serving on the board of directors of the Colorado Cattle Feeders Association and advising NCBA's Quality Assurance Task Force.
In 1991 and 1995, he helped conduct the checkoff-funded National Beef Quality Audits. In 1994 and 1999, he oversaw the National Non-Fed Beef Quality Audit and National Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit. These studies continue to provide producers with baseline and comparative information about the overall quality of their product.
And, under his leadership, CSU continues to pioneer new and innovative ways to produce, prepare and package beef. His work has helped the industry demonstrate to consumers scientifically that beef is healthful, nutritious, vitamin and nutrient dense, microbiologically safe, consistent and palatable.
“Beef is now recognized as fitting into the diet of essentially all people,” Smith says. “Beef is chemically and microbiologically safe. More and more beef is now sold in consumer-friendly forms. As an industry, we have a commitment to produce a product that's fresh in appearance, tender, juicy and flavorful – without the excess fat.” Smith expects the beef business to experience a great deal of change in the coming years – and that the coming decade will be an exciting time as the industry adopts new technology and becomes more focused on consumers. Some of the things that will drive this change include:
Meat packing technology. Smith believes several innovations in technology will change the way the beef industry does business and the manner in which it determines and discovers value of beef carcasses. One of those technologies is instrument grading, which promises to add greater objectivity to beef quality-grading procedures. While the technology is not intended to replace USDA graders, instrument-grading technologies are programmed to help graders more efficiently complete their tasks.
Technologies such as Colorado State University's Beef Cam, Canada's Computer Vision Systems (CVS) and Australia's Video Imaging Analysis (VIA) electronically image beef carcasses, providing graders with a more accurate determination of ribeye size and marbling, fat thickness, and carcass yield.
Because these instruments can assess carcasses to the nearest tenth of a yield grade, these systems will help plants more accurately reward producers based on cutability as well as quality. Smith expects these instruments to be commonplace in the meat packing business in the near future. Several packing companies have already tested one or more of them at processing speeds; some have them in their facilities now.
Smith also foresees the accelerated use of roboticized harvesting, dressing and fabricating techniques. These will greatly increase packer efficiency, while value-discovery technologies such as instrument grading will more accurately predict carcass quality, palatability and tenderness. He also believes that packers will increasingly begin to provide case-ready packaging of consumer cuts – some of which will lengthen the shelflife of the product (for example, modified atmosphere packaging, which can increase shelflife and caselife) – to retail operators, and will begin distributing large volumes of beef to consumers via the Internet.
Branded beef. During the last three decades, the industry has rolled out scores of branded beef products. Most have failed. But a handful have gotten traction, and their impact on the marketplace has been undeniable. The industry now claims more than a handful of successful branded beef programs: Certified Angus Beef, B3R Meats, Sterling Silver, Maverick Ranch, Laura's Lean Beef and Harris Ranch Beef to name a few.
Targeted at guaranteeing quality, consistency and palatability, branded programs such as these have forced cattle producers and feeders to become more consumer focused in their management decisions. Smith expects even more innovations to take place in the branded beef business, and for more cattle producers and feeders to take part in production systems to produce specification cattle for specific branded markets.
Vitamin E-fed beef. “One area where cattle feeders can make immediate and substantial improvements in beef quality is through the use of Vitamin E as a dietary supplement in fed cattle rations,” says Smith. Not only does Vitamin E bolster animal health and performance, research shows it also improves beef's color, appearance and caselife in grocery stores.
It works like this: When beef is exposed continuously to oxygen, its color turns from the desirable and marketable cherry red to purplish-brown in just a few hours. Vitamin E delays the onset of this discoloration for eight to 34 hours because it's an antioxidant.
Maintaining a fresh appearance is especially important economically, because if beef doesn't look fresh, consumers won't buy it. According to recent research, beef's appearance is the No. 1 criterion for consumers when making purchasing decisions. Even so, up to 20 percent of all beef sold in the United States is either discounted or discarded because of discoloration, says Smith.
“Beef is at a competitive disadvantage to poultry, because lots of chicken and turkey arrive in the supermarket frozen,” Smith says. “And poultry doesn't change color when it's displayed in the meatcase.”
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association estimates U.S. retailers could recover 16 cents/pound and international retailers 52 cents/pound if they marketed Vitamin E-treated beef. That adds up to some pretty hefty figures. All told, if the use of Vitamin E were universal in the U.S., the beef industry could increase the value of its retail product by $1.335 billion per year, Smith says.
Best of all, the level of investment is minute: about $1 a head for the entire feeding period.
Unfortunately, U.S. retailers have been slow to recognize the added value of Vitamin E-fed beef. Consequently, cattle producers have been reluctant to make additional investments until they receive rewards for doing so.
Currently, less than 15 percent of fed cattle produced in the U.S. receive Vitamin E as part of their feeding ration, says Smith.
Flavorful, consumer-friendly, easy-to-prepare entrees.
Twenty years ago, beef demand began a downhill slide that didn't end until late 1999. This trend was caused in large part by the emergence of convenience-focused poultry products. Consumers found beef too expensive, to hard to prepare, and out of favor because of diet/health concerns.
Much of that trend has changed. During the last few years, the industry launched a number of new products for consumers, adding value to low-demand cuts like the round.
Smith strongly believes that one of the best ways to consumers' hearts, and consequently to their checkbooks, is through providing consumer-friendly forms of beef. Many of the new heat-and-serve beef entrees are ready to eat in 20 minutes or less. They have the flavor and overall eating quality that consumers demand along with the convenience they want.
“The most significant mistake the industry ever made was when we tried to make beef more competitive with poultry by making it leaner at the cost of taste and palatability,” Smith says. Consumers then viewed beef not only as inconvenient, but also as tough and flavorless.
But thanks to breakthroughs in technology – and a renewed focus on consumers – the beef business appears to have turned the corner. For this trend to continue, Smith believes that everyone involved in beef production – from producers, to Texas feedlot operators, to packers and purveyors – must gear up even more to win back consumers. “The industry must continue its ardent struggle to “argue its case, using scientific data that beef nutritionally fits in the diet,” Smith says.
In addition, consumers must recognize that the industry is working hard to ensure that beef is -- and will continue to be -- microbiologically and chemically safe, and that the industry is investigating production practices and genetics that improve beef's consistency in desirable palatability attributes.
Smith says beef demand can be further increased through producing and marketing convenient products at retail and food-service establishments and ensuring that cattle are produced in an ecologically sound environment under humane conditions.
The industry must work harder at getting these important messages out to the public.
Although checkoff-funded research and innovative marketing tactics have improved beef's image, Smith says there are several ways producers can contribute to beef's success story. “Producers must believe in Beef Quality Assurance programs and practice BQA protocols religiously, keep cattle as clean (free of mud and manure) as possible, feed vitamin E for at least 100 days prior to harvest, and use source, production-practice and process-verification techniques to improve the safety and quality of beef,” Smith says.
Producing quality, economically rewarding and consumer-friendly beef requires forward thinking and innovation. Computers and the Internet have revolutionized today's society, significantly easing business communication, data sharing and information access. This technological revolution will change day-to-day business activities for feedlots, especially in procuring feeder cattle and selling finished cattle.
Smith says tomorrow's technologies will enable feedlot operators to increase their involvement in “partnerships, alliances, and branded beef linkages,” because they will “make buying and selling cattle less stressful, and growing or developing cattle more profitable” for feeders.
Most of all, Smith continues to believe that beef's future is bright.
Armed with the knowledge of past mistakes and ready to charge forward with new technologies, he believes the beef industry is ready to forge new partnerships, create dynamic alliances and guarantee consumers a product tailor-made to fit their needs. “Producers must be ready to respond immediately to remain competitive within their sector and to form linkages to those in upstream or downstream sectors that maximize opportunities to build, grow or survive,” Smith says.