Beef demand. What is it, and how can the Beef Checkoff Program influence changes in demand? These are questions that a recent checkoff-funded “U.S. Beef Demand Drivers and Enhancement Opportunities: A Research Study” tried to answer.

Every 10 years, the beef industry takes an introspective look at the activities completed and what lies ahead. The 2008 study, completed by Drs. James Mintert and Ted Schroeder, professors in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University along with Dr. Glynn Tonsor from Michigan State University, intended to quantify key factors leading to beef demand shifts over time and use that knowledge to guide future decision-making.

So where does the beef industry currently stand?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that increasing beef demand doesn’t just happen at the shelves of the grocery store. It requires a joint effort by all vertical segments of the beef production, processing and marketing chain or, as is commonly said, from pasture to plate. This offers plenty of opportunities for checkoff programs to make an impact on beef demand.

“We have our work cut out for us,” says Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) Chairman Lucinda Williams, a dairy producer from Hatfield, Mass. “We had no way of foretelling the future and the economic struggles we’re all faced with as producers and consumers. In spite of all this, we remain grounded and committed to making the best decisions we can to fund the right programs that have the potential to increase producer profitability along the way.

“We need to focus on the things we can have some impact on,” Williams continues. “We can’t impact the economy; there is no secret recipe. We have to react to the economy, make wise program choices, and therefore influence beef demand through our beef checkoff dollars.”

A Lock on the Wallet

One of the first conclusions Mintert draws is that beef demand is very responsive to changes in consumer expenditures on goods and services. On average, he notes, a 1 percent increase in total U.S. consumer expenditures results in a 0.9 percent increase in the quantity of beef demanded. Given the state of the economy, one might assume (with good reason) that consumers won’t be rushing out to spend the nest egg. Therefore, a decline in U.S. retail beef demand is likely in 2009.

If consumers are more price-conscious, what then does that mean for beef demand? Mintert suggests that although price is integral to attracting consumers to purchase beef, small price increases or declines by themselves have small discernable impacts on beef consumption. The key for the beef industry is to provide consumers with products that meet their needs. If the industry fails to do that, consumers may be encouraged to look at other protein sources such as poultry and pork. So, that means the industry needs to continue focusing some of its efforts on providing consumers what they want, which is a product that is nutritious, flavorful, tender, safe, healthy and convenient.

That leads us to our next point: food safety. As witnessed with the “cow that stole Christmas” in 2003 and the latest debacle at Hallmark/Westland, food safety recalls adversely impact consumer demand for beef. And, the increase in food safety recalls caused retail beef demand to decline 2.6 percent in 2007.

“As the industry develops programs designed to improve beef demand, ensuring consumers have a safe supply of beef is critical to maintaining consumer confidence,” Mintert reports. “A cooperative effort among vertical market participants is essential to protecting food safety and beef’s image among consumers.”

Telling the Beef Story

Beef demand benefits from increasing published information regarding health benefits associated with zinc, iron or protein in diets. Studies show that beef demand also responded positively to extensive publication of information promoting Atkins, high-protein or low-carb diets. Likewise, beef demand declines when articles are published linking diet and fat consumption to cholesterol, heart disease or arteriosclerosis.

Mintert suggests that when consumers receive a consistent, positive message with respect to beef consumption and human nutrition, it boosts beef demand. Prior to this study, data showed that when consumers received a consistent, negative message with respect to beef consumption and human nutrition (e.g., cholesterol), beef demand declined. Now, the industry can help countermand that by identifying and publicizing positive information to health professionals, nutritionists and, especially, consumers.

Times are a Changin’

From the early ‘80s to the late ‘90s, the number of women employed outside the home jumped from 53 percent to 60 percent. As this percentage increases, time available for in-home food preparation declines, thereby increasing consumer demand for products that can be prepared quickly and easily. As a result, consumers are increasingly demanding convenience. Studies reveal that as female employment outside the home and food consumed away from home increases, beef demand decreases.

Yet poultry and pork demand continues to thrive when women are working outside the home. Why? Mintert says it’s likely related to differences in the pace of new-product introductions. For every new convenience beef product introduced, poultry releases 1.6 new products. That’s why the Beef Checkoff Program has increased its focus and resources on development of new convenience products in recent years. Something has to compete with the chicken nugget and the slew of other newer poultry products.

“The checkoff is making a distinct difference bringing the value cuts through muscle profiling back to the consumers,” Williams says. “And it does help build beef demand when we have new cuts of beef that consumers are enjoying and purchasing. That brings dollars back into producers’ pockets.”

The Verdict

According to the latest USDA numbers, on Jan. 1, 2009, the U.S. beef cow herd was estimated at 31.7 million head, 2.4% smaller than a year earlier. Looking ahead, Mintert expects the herd shrink again during 2009. But, he points out that there is a potential upside to the herd reduction currently underway. Producers are learning to make more with less, and consumers have the same mindset when it comes to personal finances.

“Cow-calf producers need to keep their eye on the future. With a shrinking U.S. herd, over time we’re reducing the quantity of meat provided to consumers. When the economy turns around and beef demand recovers, we do so with a tight supply base,” Mintert concludes. “In the past, that has created potential for a strong upswing in prices. Cow-calf producers need to get through 2009 and possibly 2010, and then things may really bounce back as the U.S. economy recovers. They also need to invest in risk management to manage downside risk.

“In the past 18 months, the equity drain on cattle feeders has been huge and will continue to be for a while longer. Cattle feeders need to rationalize what’s taking place and might end up ratcheting down the price we pay for feeder cattle. Feeders didn’t anticipate demand dropping so drastically and that’s what this market has been about: demand, not supply.”

Mintert states there is “no single dominant beef demand driver that the industry should focus all of its attention on.” The beef industry is dynamic, flexible and responsive to many outside influences, which makes it even more necessary for Beef Board and state beef council leadership to monitor and adjust to change, and to work with every vertical segment along the way. So while there’s no secret recipe for increasing beef demand, that doesn’t mean that producers involved with making decisions on where beef checkoff dollars should be invested quit cooking.

To view the corresponding graphs and sidebars, link to the full article here.