Polish demand for American beef charges ahead with their hot economy.

Only yesterday, in terms of history, Poland was squirming beneath the proverbial iron fist of communism and a government-mandated economy. Consumers stood in lines around the block, waiting their turn to snatch sparse choices from shelves that were all but empty. Consumption of luxuries like meat, gasoline and shoes revolved around government-issued coupons.

Now, a free-market system - in place for a decade - is forging one of the steamiest economies in the world. Polish consumers are making more money and eagerly spending it for things they could only dream about for a half-century of state rule. Today, they casually shop in supermarkets that would rival any in the U.S., and beat most of them for size, service and selection.

"No one could have believed that we could have come to the moment we're at today where we could promote U.S. beef in a Polish supermarket," says Piotr Rucinski, agricultural specialist for the American Embassy in Warsaw. He's referring to a crowd of Polish chefs jammed around a display table at a Warsaw restaurant to hear more about how to cut, cook and present U.S. beef for profit.

The five-city educational tour was sponsored by the Texas Beef Council (TBC), Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), the U.S. Meat Export Federation (MEF), and Polish meat importer, P. Elkopol.

Attitudes Are Changing Fast Although Poland has been a steady and growing importer of U.S. beef tripe for several years, the notion of grain-fed beef cuts is still a novelty to most Polish restaurants, retailers and their customers. Until three years ago, Thad Lively, MEF vice president of export services, says only one restaurant carried American beef. Today, at least 20 restaurants have American product on their menus.

"Right now, the main problem is that it is expensive. We have to change the chefs' minds about the calculation," says Jerzy Wierzbicki, president of P. Elkopol, which has led the charge to introduce Polish chefs to U.S. beef. Before Elkopol shifted gears to muscle cuts, the importer handled 30% of all the U.S. beef tripe business in the country.

"The chefs calculate the food cost plus several hundred percent margin. With beef they need to calculate their cost per plate in Zloty (about 25 cents U.S.)," explains Wierzbicki.

Specifically, Grzegorz Kazubski, corporate chef for Orbis, S.A. - which includes 56 hotels and more than 100 restaurants - says, "We cannot make a 300 percent profit for each dish. With beef we try to make 100-150 percent." Even then, making the margin can be tough. For example, Kazubski says in some restaurants the highest priced menu item might be 45 Zloty and the cost for the beef in the serving might be 35 Zloty.

On top of that, Wierzbicki says the dynamics of American export beef pricing - sometimes fluctuating as much as 30-40% from month to month - makes it difficult for chefs to lock in a profit margin.

Furthermore, Wierzbicki points out frozen beef, grain-fed beef with added intramuscular fat and French-style cuts - those that American consumers expect to see in the meat case and on their plates - are new to the Polish.

"Poland has no tradition of producing beef," says Rucinski. "It has always been a side-product of milk production." In other words, the only beef most Polish people know is grass-fed dairy product.

With those things in mind, the escalating demand for American beef is a tribute to the efforts of organizations like Elkopol that have been using education and demonstration to win over restaurants one at a time.

For perspective, Lively points out the U.S. exported 789 tons of beef muscle cuts to Poland last year, up 152% from 1998. Total beef and beef variety meat exports to Poland increased 31%, to 9,153 tons, during the same period.

"Each month demand is going up," says Alicia Wozniak, Elkopol vice president. She emphasizes, "Our idea is to develop a market for high quality beef."

Banking On New Traditions Of course, as Polish buyers and American sellers take initial baby steps in this fledgling market, they understand there are mountains to conquer.

First, although Polish beef imports from the U.S. are increasing, domestic per capita beef consumption remains static (Table 1). Last year, Rucinski explains Poland consumed about 17 lbs. of beef per capita. That compares to about 97 lbs. in the U.S. and 44 lbs. in Mexico (carcass weight basis).

"Beef production has been sufficient in Poland, not because consumption is so high, but because demand has been so low," says Rucinski. He explains Polish people traditionally eat about as much pork as Americans eat beef.

Plus, even as the nation grows wealthier, many of its people still struggle to make ends meet. Rucinski explains part of that has to do with the fact that 27% of Poland's 40 million people are farmers - many eking out a living on just a few acres - and 40% live in rural areas.

"This is still a market limited by the income of the majority of the population," says Rucinski. But, he explains, "People are growing richer here. They will have an opportunity to own their own homes and to pay for what they want... Quality-wise, there is a big potential for the U.S. to get this market."

And, not just the beef market, per se. As Polish producers seek to meet growing domestic beef demand, Rucinski believes American producers will have ample opportunity to market genetics and technology as well.

But, the clock is ticking. Poland has petitioned for membership into the European Union (EU), the same pesky organization currently trying to exclude U.S. beef from their markets.

However, with the EU in mind, Rucinski says, "I think it's important for Poland to develop this beef market now, before Poland becomes a member."

Although no one knows if or when Poland will gain EU membership, Lively explains the hope is that beef consumption when they become a member would be factored into their beef import quota. Such was the case when Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU during the past five years.

The Language Of Universal Taste In the meantime, Peter Rosenberg, internationally recognized executive chef and owner of DELICATEXAS Food Creations at Kingwood, TX, told the Polish chefs, "The biggest challenge is always to find a cut of meat that is cost-effective and risk-free to your reputation."

His own belief in beef as a profitable, crowd-pleasing menu staple led him to help the industry explore alternative uses and added value for the under-utilized beef cuts demonstrated at these seminars. Besides preparing all the meat, he could talk to the chefs in dollar and customer terms they understood.

As excited chefs gathered around a barbecued brisket, juicy steamship round or tantalizing beef fajitas, Rosenberg explained, "I'm a chef, not a salesman. From a consistency standpoint, U.S. beef is second to none. Because it is grain-fed, the flavor is far superior and more dependable. And, from a visual standpoint there is white fat rather than yellow (grass-fed) and that has better eye appeal in the finished product."

Since the product is new to the country, Scott McNeill, TBC manager of beef quality, says, "We have to teach them how to cook it and how to cut it." At each stop, he showed chefs how to fabricate the boxed subprimals they would be buying.

"We're using these seminars as a way to increase the acceptance of American beef and of underutilized beef cuts," says Hawley Shaw, TBC international marketing manager. In a new market that also means helping buyers figure out how to excite their customers about a new product.

Shaw told the chefs, "Some of the cuts we consider to be under-utilized can offer you a high value at a low cost. Plus, you can take advantage of the taste and reputation of U.S. beef to have a highly marketable product."

Incidentally, through three TBC-TDA-MEF seminars, only one chef asked about the safety of U.S. beef. At each seminar, McNeill explained, "The U.S., I'm happy to say, has the safest beef supply in the world because every animal going through our packing plants undergoes mandatory inspection... Every animal is given a seal of approval."

Through it all, Rucinski emphasizes, "Quality is the key issue. That's why a seminar like this is so valuable. It's important for Polish consumers to see what an American steak is."

If the hungry mob of Polish chefs was any indication, Polish consumers are eager to see more American beef. The chefs paid the same high compliment we do here: They cleaned their plates and came back for seconds.