A comprehensive study by ag economists at Kansas State University (KSU) and Michigan State University (MSU) found that nutrition, safety and convenience are important factors in shoppers´ attitudes toward buying beef. Price is also a factor but modest price fluctuations have small discernable impacts on beef demand.

"A lot of what´s happened with the recent slowdown in (beef) demand is due to macroeconomics," says James Mintert, KSU ag economist, who collaborated with KSU’s Ted Schroeder and MSU’s Glynn Tonsor on the “U.S. Beef Demand Drivers and Enhancement Opportunities” study. "Much of this is out of the industry´s control, but there are things the industry can work on to reinforce demand and prepare for a rebound when the economy starts to recover."

The study, designed to provide a comprehensive and updated assessment of factors influencing U.S. consumer demand for beef, was funded by the Cattlemen´s Beef Board and several state beef and cattlemen´s organizations.

Schroeder says that while research has shown that price is integral to beef shoppers, small price increases or declines by themselves have small impacts on beef consumption. With that in mind, Schroeder says the industry should focus on ensuring that consumers don’t have non-price reasons to shift away from beef consumption.

"Consumers want consistently high quality beef products that are nutritious, flavorful, tender, safe, healthy and convenient to prepare," he said, citing the recent study and other research.

The study also revealed that food-safety recalls adversely impact domestic and foreign consumer demand for beef. Recalls have been on a "troubling upward trend" in recent years. In fact, beef food safety recalls jumped from 18 in 2006 to 38 in 2007. That rise alone contributed to a 2.6% drop in domestic retail beef demand, the study concluded.

Consumers are also influenced by health and nutrition info and the study examined how articles in medical journals affect beef demand. For example, the number of medical journal articles published linking fat in the diet with cholesterol and heart disease nearly quadrupled from 1982 through 2004. Beef demand declined about 9% because of this influx of info linking fat in the diet to cholesterol and heart disease, according to the study.

Similarly, the 268% increase in the number of medical journal articles published noting the importance of zinc, iron and protein and diet from 1982 to 2007 boosted beef demand by about 7%, while also increasing poultry demand 13%.

In addition, the study found that the net (positive minus negative) number of articles promoting low-carbohydrate diets jumped by 245% from 1998 to 2003 and then fell after 2003.

"The media frenzy supporting low-carbohydrate diets helped boost beef demand by nearly 2% from 1998 through 2003," according to the study´s final report.

"For the industry, the implications are clear," Mintert says. "First, conduct research that helps identify positive impacts derived from beef consumption. Second, these findings need to be presented to health professionals, nutritionists and, especially, consumers.

More info on the beef demand study is available at: www.agmanager.info.
-- Mary Lou Peter, KSU Extension release