In the fresh meat case, beef still outsells fresh pork and poultry combined. But changing lifestyles have modified the way people buy food, and that has made traditional methods of serving these markets obsolete.

On top of that, the beef industry is completely restructuring, slowly evolving from a supply chain focused on "pushing" product to one that "pulls" product by meeting consumer demands.

Joe Gordon, senior consultant for meat and poultry at the Sparks Companies in Grand Rapids, MI, says market understanding, technology and a realization of retailing demands will create success for the new value-added beef items that will lead the way.

Gordon says today's average meal preparation time has declined 75 minutes since 1960. Only 45 minutes is allotted for primary meal preparation in 78% of U.S. households today.

Meanwhile, 32% of adult women were in the workplace in 1962. That's now 70%. In that same time, single-person households increased by more than 8 million. People younger than 35 are taught not to eat as much beef, plus vegetarianism is growing.

Opportunities Present As with any restructuring, Gordon says opportunities arise and those with the right products gain customers. Much of the population has lost the ability to cook at home, meaning complete meal solutions will dominate.

Retailers do offer some meal solutions. And, Gordon says they're measuring profits in gross revenue on them as opposed to pounds and dollars of meat. Revenue is up, yet the amount of pounds sold is declining.

Rob Ames, head of product marketing for Certified Hereford Beef, concurs. He says that in some instances, retailers upgrade their beef program by buying higher cost and grades of beef. They, in turn, charge more and make more profit, yet sell less tonnage.

That's a bitter pill to swallow, but Ames and Gordon note the long-term goals to restore profitability may require short-term sacrifices.

"Besides containing meal solutions, new packaging will allow us to obtain scan data and build a measuring stick so we know what we actually have at the market," Gordon says. "Then, we can build a demand model because we'll have pounds sold, prices paid and dollars received.

"Technology is just now allowing us to develop products that require little preparation time. If everything works - branding, meal solutions, new products - and we become profitable within the system, we can stop market share loss."

It can't come too soon. USDA and Cattle-Fax say consumer spending on beef is expected to decline $700 million this year.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) is working with retailers to develop value-added products and address consumer confusion.

"In the past nine months, we've helped build a new category of heat-and-serve products," says Kevin Yost, executive director of channel marketing for NCBA. "Some retailers are establishing convenience sections for these and other products that eliminate at least one step for meal preparers."

Most notable, Yost says, is a project at Kroger stores where beef is arranged by cooking methods. Color-coded signs direct shoppers to dishes they cook most and correspondingly colored labels give cooking instructions.

"Meat managers say consumers make faster purchase decisions and they've noticed a decline in preparation questions," Yost says. "Plus, they're selling a broader range of cuts than before. And, store employees have learned more about beef, too.

Kroger introduced this in December. One division experienced a 4.1% increase in beef pounds moved in the first month compared to a year ago. A second division saw a 7.9% increase in just three weeks.

"Organizing the beef section by cooking method increases consumer confidence, providing them with cooking instructions for every beef item in the case. It's a win for them, the Kroger Co. and the beef industry," says Gary Telitz, manager of case-ready development and operations for the retailer.

Another retailer in the Northwest was experiencing flat sales of a microwaveable beef entree when NCBA helped managers create a convenience section for precooked items in the fresh case. Sales rose. The entree was distributed to 90% of its stores and advertising increased. Sales per store climbed 30%.

NCBA is now taking the concept to a national level under the "Beef Made Easy" campaign. The campaign includes retailer instructions, signage and staff education materials.

Foodservice Role Grows That long-term approach is taking hold among foodservice operators, too. Today, 51% of the food dollar is spent away from home, says Scott Gates, beef department manager with Sysco Corp. in Houston, TX.

"If you pinpoint that to beef, we're seeing a strong rise in steakhouse type customers creating a need for the right middle meats. But, we're not limited to those."

In the past eight years, Sysco's beef department has grown by double digits in terms of pounds sold. Its specialists developed a line of mini-roasts from the chuck, clod and chuck roll. Traditionally weighing 20 lbs., center muscles are sectioned to create four to five, 1-lb. roasts. This is also done with the round for a rotisserie application, a to-go entree or part of a home meal replacement.

Precooked pot roasts made from the chuck are a regular item for health care and retirement community settings. Gates says Sysco pre-portions the roasts into 3- to 5-oz. sizes. Plus, the chuck sources new appetizers called Beef Tasters (registered Trademark) which uses a patented process to align ground chuck muscles so that they taste and perform as would a single muscle.

Another trend is to take preparation out of the restaurant, Gates says. Pre-sliced products, for instance, not only save money but make the workplace safer.

Another is flavored steak profiles, where high-quality steaks are complemented with flavors and seasonings. An operator opens the package and puts the steak right on the grill.

As restaurateurs relinquish preparation, others fill the void. Gates says pre-portioned products are moving from box beef subprimals to precooked items. Packers cook some of them, further integrating that segment of production.

"The supplier community has the same challenge as processors - irregular product size," Gates says. "It's difficult to set equipment to put out the same serving size time after time."

His customers routinely object to the cost per portion of beef compared to other proteins. That's one reason new products use less expensive cuts such as the chuck.

Gates is certain about beef's future in foodservice. New products keep coming, but he longs for more level and consistent supplies.

"We need to offer more quality cuts at a better value to the customer. Steps like alliances will help us," he says.

"I think beef sales are lost because of fear, not truth," says Anne Dubner, registered dietitian. The Houston nutrition consultant counsels cardiac rehabilitation clients, diabetes patients and others.

"Physicians send patients to me loaded with misinformation, often pushing them to not eat meat. To tell someone who's a meat eater to stop is like telling a cat not to drink milk," she says.

"I haven't changed my recommendations over the years," Dubner says. "The American Dietetics Association recommends the same as the USDA Food Guide Pyramid - 6 oz. of animal protein per day.

During sessions, Dubner applies common-sense advice about eating meat such as sticking with leaner, round and loin cuts. She says beef has its share of faults such as lack of portion control in packaging and labeling that refers to fat by weight rather than actual percentage. Beef's taste, protein, iron and dense nutrient qualities, however, keep it in her recommendations.

It's In The Package It may be a great product, but if it isn't packaged attractively, it won't sell, says James "Jim" Guenther, marketing director of Robbie Manufacturing in Lenexa, KS. Its product mix includes four-color printing on PVC and polyolefin films for meat products including Pilgrim's Pride, State Fair brand corn dogs and Smithfield meats.

More than 50% of Robbie's business is printing wrapping for supermarkets. Guenther says wrapping for processors is the fastest growing part of the business.

"Packaging brings value to products via merchandising and branding," he says. "In fact, Frank Perdue convinced consumers the brand is important, when the company wrapped its products in polyolefin shrink film. Store wrapped poultry now is perhaps less acceptable than branded poultry products.

"In the other meats, it's the opposite. If you put beef in a case-ready package, consumers don't think it's as fresh as store-wrapped meat," Guenther says.

Technology is improving the beef picture. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) lets processors maintain a low oxygen atmosphere in foam trays with PVC or polyolefin film. Additionally, ground beef is sometimes packed in MAP and air is replaced with an oxygen and gas mixture. The meat stays fresher longer, increasing shelf life. Other MAP packages are designed to "breathe" in air so oxygen regenerates the red bloom in the beef, which consumers prefer.

"Branding and packaging will add value, no doubt," he says. "As we get consumers to understand brands, we can match packaging to their desires. For example, we can include serving suggestions, recipes, cooking instructions and so on."

Experts claim if we put all the pieces together, beef will hold its own. When that will happen is a guess. Cattle-Fax estimates a per capita decline by 2.3 lbs. this year, another 7 lbs. by 2002.

Gordon says retailers will search for branded and commodity systems as retail margins tighten, but at a rate unknown. Last year, consumers spent more than $46 billion dollars on beef. Repeating that level is dependent on getting profitability throughout the entire chain.