Little wonder many consumers seem confused as they shop their grocery store's fresh meat case. There are more than 100 different meat cuts offered at any given time in a large supermarket — and hundreds more the store can make available.
What's more, it's estimated there are more than a thousand names used for these cuts across the U.S.
Stores often choose colorful names for cuts to help sell meat, but the practice does little to provide customers information. Even a meat expert would have trouble identifying where a breakfast steak comes from, for example, or a paradise roast. And with a diminishing level of consumer knowledge of even basic food preparation, it's become a significant issue for the meat industry.
Beef comes in for the largest share of that confusion. According to the National Meat Case Study 2004, partially funded by the beef checkoff, whole-muscle beef cuts and ground beef make up 41% of the fresh meat case.
In the early 1970s, government, consumer groups and the retail and meat industries recognized the problem. As a result, the National Live Stock and Meat Board (now the National Cattlemen's Beef Association) was asked to coordinate an industry effort to reduce confusion through what would become the Industry-Wide Cooperative Meat Identification Standards Committee (ICMISC).
As part of this effort, the Meat Board in 1973 introduced the Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards (URMIS) program. It simplified for consumers the confusing assortment of meat cuts offered at grocery stores nationwide. Retailers could customize it to fit their own merchandising efforts, but the meat cuts would have easily identifiable names that would be common from store to store.
That system today provides the most complete list of common names for various fresh meat cuts. The names are set up by species, primal and retail cut names, and can include information on whether the retail item includes bone. For instance, a beef loin T-bone steak, bone-in, clearly describes for both consumer and retailer what the cut is and where it comes from.
Possibly more important, the program allows for advanced department and marketing operations through Uniform Product Codes (UPCs) used on package labels. Beginning in the mid 1980s, meat department operators could better track inventory and sales through bar codes on labels affixed to incoming wholesale cut boxes and outgoing random weight retail meat cuts.
ICMISC says thousands of stores have adopted URMIS. Because the system was only available in printed form, however, some smaller retailers may have been reluctant to join the effort.
Last year, URMIS joined the electronic age by offering retailers a CD that includes all materials needed to participate. The tool provides consumer-oriented information on meat cookery and nutrition.
It also has more than 500 full-color photos, and links common cuts to UPC numbers. This allows meat department personnel to better utilize data and maximize meat inventory, merchandising, promotion and sales opportunities.
The CD should continue to bring the country's meat departments into the 21st century. That's good for consumers accustomed to lots of choices as they shop. It also may bring relief to the beef industry, by further minimizing consumer confusion.
Walt Barnhart is president of Carnivore Communications LLC, Denver, CO, and a former communications director of NCBA.