“Warmed-over.” That's how a lot of folks used to describe the flavor of beef — and pretty much everything else — in the first TV dinners. They were convenient, consistent and pretty affordable at about $1.29 each, but you wouldn't dare serve them to dinner guests.

Now, 50 years later, many descendants of the original TV dinner — known as precooked convenience products — are just as tasty as Mom's cooking. In fact, in some households, they are Mom's cooking.

Much credit for that change goes to the microwave oven, which helped to make many frozen foods popular in the 1980s as more and more moms began working outside the home. Although it provided convenience, the microwave rarely gave consumers a tasty beef experience.

Beef's complex makeup and the industry's lack of product innovation allowed chicken and other proteins to rule the frozen foods and deli foods sections. Had it not been number one in the fresh meat case, beef might have become a dinosaur.

Not The “Old” TV Dinner

Fortunately, in the 1990s some companies — namely Don Burnett, Harris Ranch, Flint Hills Foods and RMH Foods — recognized beef's potential and began commercializing heat-and-serve beef products for consumers.

“The technology they were using was pretty basic stuff, but it actually was an elevation above the TV dinner because it was in a package that didn't allow oxidation, so you didn't get that ‘warmed-over’ flavor,” explains Carl Blackwell, who is executive director of product marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

This precooking technology finally made beef and the microwave a perfect fit.

In 1998, Harris Ranch's fully cooked, ready-to-eat pot roast won the beef checkoff-funded $250,000 award for the “Best New Beef Product in America” and opened the door for the heat-and-serve category.

Major corporations, such as Hormel, Smithfield and IBP, took note. Soon, Hormel had a joint venture with Flint Hills Foods, enabling the national distribution of heat-and-serve beef pot roasts.

“Nobody had ever seen a beef product like this marketed with a major brand on it,” recalls Bernie Hansen, president of Flint Hills Foods. “They [Hormel] immediately developed the category, and now Hormel is the leading brand.”

Don Burnett and Harris Ranch remain independent, but Smithfield now owns RMH Foods. Tyson/IBP and General Mills also are major players in this category.

“The stage has really switched [from the innovators] to the maximizers, folks who can really develop a market and support it with sufficient advertising dollars to make a product successful,” Blackwell explains. “Now, we're starting to see beef pop up all over the place.”

Last year, more than 500 new beef convenience products were launched, and sales in the heat-and-serve category were close to $120 million.

“It is absolutely phenomenal in four and a half years what has happened in an industry that many people thought was mature,” says Mark Thomas, NCBA's vice president of consumer marketing. “Without the checkoff prodding the industry, it never would have happened.”

The Not-So-Remote Control

Since 1997, the driving force behind most new beef products in the supermarket has been the checkoff-funded R & D Ranch in Chicago, which Blackwell heads.

Dedicated to increasing the value of the chuck and round and providing consumers with convenient new beef products, folks at the R & D Ranch develop new beef product concepts based on extensive research. In addition, the R & D Ranch works with manufacturers on their own new products and helps them overcome marketplace hurdles.

“We're there to help them be successful because, in the long run, when they are successful, the beef producer is going to be successful,” Blackwell says.

Another area in which beef is a mover and shaker is the frozen foods category. Bagged frozen meal kits, like Stouffer's Skillet Sensations, are all the rage in the freezer aisle.

This category has long been a stronghold for chicken, while beef's complex makeup made its commercialization in this section difficult for manufacturers, Blackwell says.

The R & D Ranch recently helped companies such as Pillsbury develop high-quality beef specifications that allowed them to put a beef version of their product into the marketplace.

“Now, we are seeing a lot of beef versions of these frozen meal kits — a whole plethora of different frozen food items,” Blackwell explains.

“The frozen category in the retail grocery store is a huge category,” Thomas concurs. “We are just starting to scratch the surface.”

Earlier this year, Tyson introduced an eight-item line of individually frozen steaks and pork chops. “Tyson is going to build a destination space for beef and other protein products in the frozen food section,” Blackwell says.

Thomas points out that one item which might fit well in such a destination is the precooked frozen beef patty.

Yet another big frontier for beef is the supermarket deli, where the R & D Ranch is paving the way for ready-to-eat beef products such as sliced deli meats and hot pot roast. Blackwell explains the R & D Ranch isn't actually selling these products; it's selling the concept to retailers and then working with manufacturers to make it happen.

“If we don't sell the idea,” he says, “nobody will.”

The Payoff

The commitment to new products is paying off for beef producers in incremental business. The heat-and-serve and frozen beef convenience products made up about $1.5 billion of the $60 billion in beef industry sales last year, Blackwell says.

“When you have an industry that is this big, trying to squeeze out more dollars is harder and harder. That's a big reason why you've seen beef prices stay higher,” he says.

Likewise, Hansen says, “I think the market would be considerably lower if you weren't seeing these precooked products. We're processing a lot of cattle right now and still have good demand.”

And there's room to grow. Thomas, Blackwell and Hansen all agree that, in terms of product lifespan, beef convenience items are still in their infancy.

“We have lots of products that have an opportunity to roll out,” Hansen adds.

Opportunities And Challenges

Although the beef industry is enjoying the fruits of its new product initiative, there's no time to rest. Consumer demographics continually evolve.

Thomas sees the changing ethnicity of America's population as a huge opportunity for beef products. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, dramatic growth in the Hispanic-American population and the Asian-American population already has helped increase the popularity of ethnic frozen foods.

“Why not try to make all the foods that they enjoy very convenient for them to prepare?” Thomas asks.

On the other hand, food trend analyst Harry Balzer believes the trend isn't about a change in food but a change in preparation. Even though 83% of Americans will eat beef in the next 30 days, how frequently they eat beef depends on how easy it is to prepare, he says.

To stay relevant, beef manufacturers and marketers must provide easy meals for the entire family, not just easy beef products, explains Balzer, who is vice president of the NPD Group.

“What the TV meal told us was that America really wanted an easy way to eat foods in their homes,” he says. “This isn't about just feeding one person; it's about feeding a family in the easiest way possible.”

And the competition isn't just other protein sources; it's pasta and pizza and other foods that you might not expect to be main dishes.

Two other challenges for beef, Balzer says, are its need for side dishes to complete the meal and the cost — beef can be one of the more expensive starters for a meal.

“Manufacturers can't lose sight of the cost,” because Americans will never let food costs rise faster than income, Balzer says.

At the end of the day, NCBA's Thomas admits product development is not at the top of most beef producers' agendas. But the industry must learn from the past because the convenience food phenomenon is not going away.

“If our product offerings are not changing with the changing consumer market,” Thomas says, “we do become a dinosaur.”

Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.

Milestones by Decade

1950s

Swanson introduces the first TV dinner (1953); other precooked or prepared frozen foods are introduced; Ray Kroc opens the first McDonald's franchise in Des Plaines, IL (1955).

1960s

Microwave oven is introduced; McDonald's accepts frozen meat patties.

1970s

Paper tray packaging is developed for oven and microwave cooking; Burger King decides to use frozen meat patties; 46% of married women are working or looking for work.

1980s

Microwave items increase in popularity; fast-food hamburgers are frozen for retail.

1990s

Almost 60% of married women are working or looking for work; Flint Hills Foods begins selling home-style, pre-cooked pot roast to restaurants and institutions (1993) The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) starts a new product initiative called the R&D Ranch (1997); Harris Ranch's fully cooked, ready-to-eat pot roast wins NCBA's award for the “Best New Beef Product in America” and opens the door for the heat-and-serve category (1998); Flint Hills Foods and Hormel team up to roll out a pre-cooked, heat-and-serve pot roast product (1999).

2000

Same-store sales double when Flint Hill's heat-and-serve pot roasts hit the shelves with Hormel's name on them (2000); sales in the frozen meat/seafood category grow 13%.

2003

Tyson introduces the first major line of frozen steaks, creating a destination space in the frozen food section for beef and other protein products; major corporations begin to invest in opportunities for beef in the supermarket deli; 97% of households now have microwave ovens.