The food industry is notable for its twists and turns with consumer trends. Low-fat, low-carb, quality and convenience are just a few of the buzzwords that shaped grocery store offerings in the past decade.

Likewise, the beef industry has given itself a mega-makeover to appease some of those trends. Today, we have scores of branded-beef products touting everything from premium steaks and burgers to convenient heat-and-serve entrees that recreate grandma's pot roast or saucy BBQ ribs.

What does the future hold for beef products? Here, industry experts weigh in on important future consumer trends.

Growth of brands. There's no doubt branded-beef products will remain strong, says University of Nebraska meat scientist Chris Calkins. But within beef brands, he believes natural and organic programs will likely see the most growth.

Retail market signals appear to verify this prediction. Wal-Mart and Safeway recently announced expansions of in-store organic offerings. And, in early 2006, Tyson Foods unveiled two new natural beef brands — Star Ranch Natural Angus Beef and Certified Angus Beef (CAB) Natural.

The 2005 edition of a Food Marketing Institute (FMI) study looking at store development also confirms the trend. It indicates 50% of stores report their natural/organic offering is their second-most popular section, behind gourmet/specialty products (66.7%).

More beef with a story. Also related to branded beef, Colorado State University (CSU) animal science professor Tom Field predicts brands wishing to remain viable will need to evolve and sell what he terms "story beef." Using a quote from author Tom Peters, Field points out: "The problem with existing brands is they have the tendency to get dull."

Thus, Field suggests successful beef marketing in the future will incorporate emotion. As an example, he cites a promotional approach by Oregon Country Beef, which claims: "Our product is more than beef, it's the smell of sage after a summer thunderstorm, the cool shade of a Ponderosa Pine forest. It’s 80-year-old weathered hands saddling a horse in the Blue Mountains, the future of a 6-year old in a one-room school on the High Desert. It's a trout in a beaver-built pond, haystacks on an Aspen-framed meadow. It's the hardy quail running to join the cattle for a meal, the welcome ring of a dinner bell at dusk."

Of this tactic, Field says products become less important than the stories behind them. Why? "Because products can be replicated," he says. Consumers want to connect to a story. "That’s where we’ve got to go. It's more than just the bull; it’s the story behind the bull, the story behind the genetic program, the story behind the producer."

National motivational speaker Jolene Brown echoes those sentiments. "People want to buy an experience, and that's where agriculture has so much to offer," she says, adding that ranchers have a story to tell in how they care for the land and their animals.

More detailed meat labels. While the country-of-origin-labeling debate continues (a 2008 implementation is slated), fresh meat and poultry may bear new nutrition information labels. The labels would detail such information as protein, fat and carbohydrates — similar to what packaged foods already have. USDA is working on the nutritional labeling plan, and a final rule is expected soon — perhaps by year's end.

"We anticipate a federal law for nutrition labeling at retail at some point," says Mark Thomas, vice president of global marketing for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

Currently such labeling of fresh meat is voluntary. The beef industry supports such a law because it should help consumers understand the nutritional values of beef as an excellent source of iron, zinc, protein and B vitamins.

More specialty meat products. A growing food-industry trend is the development of functional foods — foods specifically promoting health or reducing disease risk. Examples include yogurt containing probiotics, which offer anti-carcinogenic properties; or eggs enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to reduce coronary heart disease risks.

Though the functional foods category will likely represent only 5% of the global food market by 2010, it’s a product area poised to grow as consumers seek healthy alternatives. Grass-fed beef proponents believe they can promote grass-fed animals’ higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and higher omega-3 ratio than grain-fed beef. CLA has been associated with decreasing the risk of cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis and arthritis, and increasing fat metabolism. As a result, grass-fed beef products might someday be labeled as "CLA-Enriched Beef."

Similarly, other specialty-beef labels could tout beef enriched with selenium. Gerald Combs, Jr., USDA-ARS Grand Forks (ND) Human Nutrition Research Center director, says research shows selenium can reduce the risk of several types of cancer. He says North Dakota is studying beef production with high levels of selenium, and adds there's real potential for a niche market of such foods.

Another option may be marketing approaches that identify beef as a low glycemic index (GI) food. The GI was developed to help control glucose levels in diabetics. High GI foods result in a greater increase in blood glucose levels. Low GI foods, such as non-starchy fruits and vegetables, beans, and meat and dairy products, produce a smaller rise in blood glucose levels. With type 1 and 2 diabetes among the most rapidly growing health problems, there appears to be a built-in audience for GI diets.

Consumers want to know how you produced it. As food safety and quality issues drive consumer concerns, more knowledge about how food is produced will increasingly be sought.

McDonald's is among those driving this trend. Last fall, the fast-food icon hosted a quality symposium and told suppliers, agricultural organization representatives and trade media it wants the American public to be aware of how food moves from farm to table.

To that end, the company's Web site now offers a virtual tour leading visitors through the process from farm-grown food to the table. For example, consumers can click on McDonald's French fries to see where potatoes are grown and how they’re selected and prepared.

McDonald's is also moving into a realm of social responsibility — voicing support for animal-product traceability; implementing a program for humane animal treatment that includes audits at beef, poultry and pork processing plants; and developing a scoring system to assess how suppliers and facilities perform in regard to environmental issues of air, energy, water and waste.

Safeway is following McDonald's lead. It formed an animal-welfare committee consisting of company employees and industry animal-handling experts, including CSU's Temple Grandin — who helped McDonald's implement its program. Safeway will post its animal-welfare policies on its Web site later this year.

Convenience is still key. Lastly, Calkins suggests the beef industry shouldn't lose sight of consumers' quest for convenience. He predicts a general increase in demand for consumer-friendly products.

For example, Calkins sees a trend for more single-muscle cuts — such as the Flat Iron Steak, which has become hugely popular because it offers taste, convenience and price sensitivity.

Additionally, Jeff Savell, a Texas A&M University meat scientist, says we're already seeing many more fully cooked, value-added products at retail, and fewer fresh-beef cuts. Savell believes there are two reasons for this: fewer people today feel comfortable preparing beef from its raw state, and more people are demanding convenient products.