For the first time since 1970, the downward shift in beef demand is slowing. 'That's the most encouraging thing I've seen in 20 years,' Wayne Purcell, Virginia Tech economist, told attendees of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Convention in Charlotte, NC, in February.

Purcell credits the trend to new consumer-oriented programs funded by beef checkoff dollars. The innovative new product programs launched last year will continue on television, print ads, special promotions and work with food processors and retailers. 'The modern consumer will pay the kind of prices for quality, consistency and convenience that will make producers a profit for a change,' he adds.

Falling demand has been a major concern. Beef's market share dropped 34% since 1976 -- from 60% market share to a projected 26% by the year 2001. During that same period, per capita consumption of ready-to-cook poultry doubled and looks to grow another 5-6% in 1999. Per-capita pork consumption is down 11 lbs. since the mid-'70s, but is expected to grow 5-6 lbs. in 1999.

In the 1980s, the emphasis was to reduce costs and boost efficiency in the production-marketing system, notes Purcell. This was necessary for economic survival.

But something more is needed today, he says. That's a new approach -- become consumer-oriented and develop new products that meet the on-the-go lifestyle of convenient meal preparation. 'If not done, beef will continue to lose market share with a major loss in 1999, mostly predetermined,' he warns.

A broad-based Beef Demand Committee, headed by Paul Genho, Kingsville, TX, went to work. They identified five primary drivers of demand as being: food safety; palatability; health and nutrition; consumer-friendly products; and cost efficiencies and value enhancement. The group also concluded that no single driver will stabilize demand. All must be addressed.

With this background, NCBA and checkoff officials have launched a broad program to capitalize on consumer trends and increase carcass values:

*Develop creative beef and veal concepts using undervalued primal beef cuts like ground beef, chucks and rounds.

'The best way to add value to the chuck and round is through new product development,' says Lee Hall, Lexington, KY, cattleman and chairman of NCBA's Marketing Initiatives Committee.

*Promote versatile quick beef, beefy finger foods and deli-sliced beef to compete with other proteins.

'Consumers want meat products that don't require a lot of time and preparation,' says Carl Blackwell, NCBA director of new products. 'We're bringing new product concepts like these to jump start beef's presence in these underdeveloped categories.'

*Tell your story. New TV ad programs reenact the successful 'What's For Dinner' tagline featuring Sam Elliott. An 'Easy Beef' campaign in Nation's Restaurant News and other publications stresses quick heat-and-serve products that can be prepared in just minutes.

*A revamped 1999 National Beef Cookoff (Omaha, NE, Sept. 24-25) will challenge amateur cooks to create quick, easy recipes using round or ground chuck and various prepared meat products.

*Encourage restaurants that have developed long-term strategies to expand their core product lines with new center-of-plate items.

It's working. 'They're so popular, that we are now buying pre-cooked pot roast and smoked brisket products to keep up with demand,' says Alison Brushaber, director of research and development.