Two-thirds of the beef carcass has lost value in just five years. To remedy the problem, the industry must challenge itself to chuck away beef's toughness and to come 'round to more tender beef.
Here's a simple test for beef producers.
Next time you or your spouse go to the supermarket meatcase, take note of where your eyes linger. And, for the purposes of this test, forget ground beef.
If your eyes go directly to the T-bones, ribeyes and strips, you're probably like most Americans. And, if these cuts find their way into your shopping bag, then you're definitely like most Americans. You're also part of the problem that's troubling today's beef industry.
That problem, very simply, is the growing spread in value between cuts from the rib and loin and cuts from the chuck and round.
In a five-year tracking of Choice beef price changes, Cattle-Fax found that rib values increased 12% and loin values increased 4%. But they only make up 25% of the carcass by weight.
In this same period, round cuts dropped 20% and chuck cuts dropped 23%. These cuts represent 66% of the carcass by weight. In other words, 21/43 of the beef carcass has seen double-digit drops in value in just half a decade. The decrease means reduced profits for feeders throughout the country.
That's why Jeff Savell, leader of the meat science section at Texas A&M University, urges producers to pay attention to the meatcase.
"I tell them to look at the cuts that they produce in volume," Savell says. "That's the chuck and the round cuts. I ask them to think about their impression of these cuts. Then I ask them to think about what can be done to help market these end meats."
Reinvent Chuck And Round The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) has announced that one of its main focus areas in the coming years will be to reinvent the chuck and the round. Here's a primer on why that must be done.
What has caused the spread?
Historically, Savell says, there always has been a spread although not so pronounced. In the days of carcass beef, the rib section was sold with the chuck. So, the forequarter was 10/lb. higher than the hindquarter, which comprised the loin and the round.
With boxed beef, conditions changed greatly. An advantage of boxes is that meat buyers specify what they want. They no longer have to merchandise harder-to-sell items. They naturally turn to the more desirable, more consistent quality middle cuts. The demand has created higher prices formiddle meats.Exports also contributed to the increase in rib and loin values, Savell says. In 1987, Japan bought only 181,658 metric tons of U.S. beef. In 1997, Japan bought 514,657 metric tons and purchased 56% of all U.S. beef exports. Japanese consumers prefer highly marbled cuts of beef, primarily sirloin, ribeyes and other premium cuts. Demand for marbled meat in other Asian steakhouses and restaurants also drives up the price of middle meats.
Domestically, the growth of steakhouses like Outback, Ruth's Chris and Morton's of Chicago has to be factored in as well. "The increase in the number of away-from-home dinner occasions that feature rib and loin cuts is a big factor," Savell says. "These restaurants normally use nothing from the chuck and round."
Lack Of Tenderness Is The Big Issue What do chuck and round cuts have going against them? In three words, lack of tenderness, says Gary Smith of Colorado State University.
"With middle meats, people who buy them can rest assured that if they broil or grill them with dry heat that they will have good eating experiences," Smith says. "It's a matter of customer satisfaction."
Chuck and round cuts need moist heat and often marination to add flavor and tenderization. Both require time, which is an increasingly valuable commodity for consumers.
In the past, some meat merchandisers have tried to pass off chuck and round cuts as single steak suggestions. That may not have been a good idea, Smith says. The consumer who bought a round steak and put it on the grill did not receive good eating results. Cubed steaks had to be requested for kabobs or stir-fry. But many times the education wasn't there, so the next time the consumer went to the store, he skipped the round section. And, if middle meats weren't affordable, poultry was the next option.
So, chuck cuts became isolated to those consumers with time to prepare a good, old-fashioned beef roast, and the round cuts became the choice of consumers seeking leanness over anything else. Yet, as sales showed, neither segment of the consumer population was large enough to move the products in enough volume to increase value.
So what is the future of the chuck and round? Obviously, it isn't a short-term exercise. But the chuck and the round can be made more appealing to consumers, says international supermarket consultant Chuck Hendryx.
"It's going to take a lot of work and effort," Hendryx says. "The chuck and the round will never get up to the rib and loin, but that value gap can be closed. It will take coordination among the industry, the retailer and the packer, but it can be done. It will start with more muscle boning of chuck and round cuts and progress to value-added products."
Muscle boning is necessary, he says, because whole muscles will have more consistency. That will allow new product developers to apply tenderizing methods that will have uniform effects. Under today's fabrication efforts, the knuckle, for instance, has four muscles of varying tenderness. By trying to tenderize the toughest muscle, the most tender muscle becomes mush. That's why fabrication by muscle rather than cut will help improve the overall program.
"We have to quit looking at the old Meat Board cut chart and say that's how we need to cut up a carcass," Smith points out. "Instead, we have to say if we can no longer sell this cut as a pot roast, what else can we do with it?"
More Branded Products That will lead to more value-added, branded products for the chuck and round. For instance, round cuts will be tenderized, breaded and ready for cooking. Chuck roasts and briskets will be pre-cooked and microwaveable.
Case-ready products for these cuts will become the norm.
"Instead of selling commodity beef, we'll do the things consumers tell us they want," Smith says. "We will tenderize and prepare them for them, and there's no question that we'll get paid for it because consumers have indicated they will."
Both Hendryx and Smith also believe that many ideas will be borrowed from foreign markets. Argentina, for example, cubes most of its chuck and round meat cuts. Mexico also does a bang-up job of marketing its chuck and round meat cuts by muscle.
"We can use these ideas to develop cuts that are desirable, acceptable and affordable," Hendryx says.
Smith adds that these ideas can help the U.S beef industry appeal to the growing numbers of ethnic populations within its own borders.
What Are The Bumps In The Road? Time is important. But already some new products, including the Harris Ranch Beef Pot Roast, NCBA's $250,000 1998 "Best New Beef Product Award in America, " are appearing in supermarket cases.
But even more important is the need to market these items as substitutes for chicken and poultry. If that isn't the foremost objective in the planning and merchandising of these items, Hendryx says, then the beef producer will see few benefits.
"Whenever a supermarket adds a new cut, and it sees significant success, that success often comes at the expense of another beef cut. In other words, it's not new beef business. We see that sometimes in Mexico where a supermarket brings in a new boneless cut and it just replaces the sales of another boneless cut. What the industry has to do is to eliminate chicken and pork items," Hendryx says.
What Can Feeders Do? Feeders can make chuck and round cuts more appealing to consumers by using Vitamin E.
NCBA's study of the effects of feeding Vitamin E shows that the chuck, round and ground beef benefited the most from feeding small amounts (500 IU daily) of Vitamin E to cattle in their regular rations. Products from cattle that received these supplements received "anywhere from several hours to a day" of more appealing appearance, according to the study.
"A cut turns brown either because of bacteria or because the muscle runs out of its ability to stay bright," Smith says. "Vitamin E slows down the rusting process."
Why will all this become increasingly more important?
In the short term, increasing the value of chuck and round cuts means more profits for the industry and more viability for more producers.
But in the long-term, turning consumers away from competing proteins with tender beef alternatives is just as important. Take the test yourself. If you don't find satisfaction in grilling round cuts and you don't have time to cook roasts, then imagine a harried housewife.
In Hendryx' opinion, the entire beef industry, from producer to retailer, has a responsibility to the customer to keep up with the times. The alternative is continued erosion of demand.
"We're already faced with a shrinking number of consumers who are cooking meals at home," Hendryx says. "It's our responsibility to do everything we can to make sure we don't disappoint them at the meatcase."