It was a tough job - six of us forced to sit before two, 1-lb., steaming, tasty pot roasts. Our task was to critically rate them for packaging, convenience and taste.

About an hour and two pot roasts later, Red Oak Farms' Beef Pot Roast with Savory Juices and Excel's Butcher & Cook's Beef Pot Roast had been eyed, poked, devoured and savored in the first BEEF Taste Test.

Through Consumers' Eyes Beef producers generally don't share urban consumers' urgency on convenience products. For one thing, the meat supply is generally home grown, and rural folks tend to be more knowledgeable about meat preparation and more conscious of price.

While the lifestyles of urban consumers probably aren't any more hectic than that of rural folks, their price-value relationship certainly is. Many urbanites don't balk at paying what rural folks would consider outlandish prices for a food product that delivers consistency, convenience and taste.

It's in the spirit of opening our readers' eyes and minds to the mindsets of their urban counterparts that BEEF staff decided to undertake this periodic critique of what's out there in pre-cooked, convenient beef products and how those products perform.

For the first Taste Test, BEEF editors Joe Roybal, Kindra Gordon and Diana Barto were joined by Ron Eustice, Michelle Torno, RD, and John Story. Eustice is executive secretary and Torno is the staff dietitian, respectively, with the Minnesota Beef Council. Story is a food marketing consultant and meat director of Fairway Foods in Bloomington, MN.

The six of us judged the two pot roast products in a blind taste test and ranked them in the categories of packaging, convenience and sensory factors (report cards on page 8). The overall score was rated on a 10-point scale with 10 being the highest, while the sub categories were rated on a five-point scale with five being the highest.

Both pre-cooked products were 16-oz. pot roasts, rated as five servings/container. Cooking times were similar (8 minutes or less in a microwave) with similar nutritional profiles (see charts below).

Overall, the Red Oak product was rated higher (8.75 on a 10-point scale) than the Excel product (7.7). The major rating differences came in the tenderness and juiciness categories in which Red Oak was rated an average score of 4.5 for tenderness (vs. 3.9 for Excel) and 4.25 for juiciness (vs. 3.3 for Excel).

According to the panel, the Excel product's greatest advantages were in visual presentation (4.25 vs. 3.9) and serving size (4 vs. 3.5). The difference in serving size was the greater waste fat in the Red Oak product, though all panelists agreed that neither product was sufficient to satisfy five adults.

Some of the comments regarding the Red Oak product were:

* "Tastes and falls apart like real pot roast."

* "Reminded me of my mom's."

* "Good flavor."

Some of the comments on the Excel product were:

* "Lean and attractive product."

* "This product visually resembles traditional pot roast - not quite as tender, but good flavor."

* "Product seems processed and formed. Doesn't fall apart like normal pot roast."

One panelist faulted the Red Oak product for its failure to clarify whether its recommended cooking times were for chilled or frozen product. Both products' packaging, however, carried toll-free phone numbers and e-mail addresses for consumer questions and comments.

Red Oak products are available in MN, ND, SD, WI and in selected stores throughout the U.S.

Butcher & Cook's products are available in more than 900 stores in PA, MD, MO, KS, MN, IN and CA.