–by Liz Morrison
The top-selling steak at Big Steer Meats in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the “Al Capone”—a butterflied chuck-eye steak stuffed with hard salami, capicola, green olives, and provolone cheese. It’s seasoned and ready for the grill, complete with detailed cooking instructions.
The Al Capone Steak, which won an Innovative Beef Award from the Minnesota Beef Council, exemplifies several new consumer trends, says Charlie Cory, owner-operator of Big Steer Meats, a wholesale and retail meat processor.
At the beef counter, he says, customers are “looking for more value and convenience, and also for something different.”
In addition, consumers want smaller, leaner beef cuts and more ready-to-eat products, says Karin Schaefer, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council. Consumers are also seeking more information about how their meat is produced and processed, she says.
Consumer preferences are changing the beef processing industry, bringing innovative products, added value, and a focus on health and education, says AURI Meat Scientist Carissa Nath. She works with many smaller Minnesota meat processing companies, like Big Steer Meats.
Here is a quick look at some of the things consumers are looking for when they buy meat, and how the beef processing industry is responding.
There are still plenty of folks who “are willing to spend a little more for a rib eye, New York strip, or tenderloin,” Cory says. At the same time, though, more consumers are “looking for value,” he says.
Processors are now offering more value cuts that were previously just used as trim, such as chuck-eye, flat iron, and tri-tip steaks. These cuts have less fat marbling and need special cooking techniques, Cory says, such as marinating or slicing against the grain. The tri-tip steak, for example, “marinated and prepared correctly can melt in your mouth. We do the marinating and explain how to cook it and slice it thin after cooking.”
Like Big Steer Meats, more processors and retailers are offering point-of-sale recipe cards and detailed cooking instructions for these new meat cuts, Schaefer adds.
A farm connection
“Consumers want more of a connection to producers,” Nath says. Processors have responded by including producers’ stories with packaged products. Processors and retailers are also including more information on labels about how the beef was produced, Nath says, such as “naturally-raised,” “grass fed,” and “grain finished.”
Taking a cue from international cuisines, processors and retailers are offering more ethnic meat products, especially Asian- and Hispanic-inspired flavors, Schaefer says. The millennial generation, in particular, “is excited about food as a cultural experience. They have an openness and interest in new flavors and foods.”
Millennials “are looking for new and interesting foods,” agrees Cory, whose best-selling brat is habanera-mango. “They are adventurous eaters.”
“Healthy but convenient snacks are a growing category” throughout the food processing industry, says AURI food scientist Charan Wadhawan.
Beef processors have responded with creative snacks, such as low-sodium beef sticks and beef jerky in interesting flavors, Schaefer says. Big Steer Meats, for example, produces a Laotian-style beef jerky that AURI helped develop.
According to a recent survey, half of Americans don’t know at 4:30 p.m. what they are fixing for the evening meal, Schaefer says. “Consumers don’t have as much time to cook now,” Nath adds, “and they are less confident about their cooking skills than in the past.”
These changes have prompted meat processors to do more of the prep work to make dinner quick and easy, Schaefer says. Now, consumers can run to the market after work and pick up products such as:
- marinated or seasoned cuts;
- sliced, assembled, and ready-to-cook dishes, such as beef and cut up vegetables packaged together:
- kabob skewers, marinated fajita strips, or beef pinwheels; and
- fully cooked, ready-to-eat beef products.
The Minnesota Beef Council’s Innovative Beef Contest focuses on convenience foods. Erdman’s Country Market in Kasson, Minnesota, for example, won recently with “fiesta beef boats”—pasta shells stuffed with ground beef, peppers, beans, and cheese. The fully cooked main course is packaged in a microwavable container. “That’s a huge seller for them,”
Cory calls this product category “heat ’em and eat ’em! We are doing a lot more of this.” Cooked meat products such as sliced brisket and shredded BBQ beef have become big sellers at Big Steer Meats,
Leaner, smaller beef cuts
The beef industry is offering leaner cuts of meat, aimed at health-conscious consumers who want to limit fat and portion size, Schaefer says.
Consumers can choose from 29 “certified lean” cuts of beef, which meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for heart-healthy foods. These are cuts from the front and back of the animal that have less than 10 grams of total fat per 3.5-ounce serving.
The growing number of one- and two-person households has prompted beef processors to offer smaller pieces of meat, too, Nath says. Some of the new, smaller cuts include 4- to 8-ounce top loin filets, rib eye cap steaks, strip filets, culotte steak, and strip petite roasts.
As consumers demand more information about their food, the meat processing industry is becoming “more open about what it does,” Nath says. “We’re seeing efforts to get more information to consumers about how meat is processed.”
The American Meat Institute has put together a series of videos with renowned Colorado State University animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin, called “If meat plants had glass walls.” (bit.ly/1m68fSs) The videos take viewers through beef processing plants, showing humane livestock handling and slaughter.
Another series of videos from the American Meat Institute, called Meat Myth Crushers, tackles common misconceptions about meat production and processing. (meatmythcrushers.com) Interviews with meat scientists set the record straight on topics such as animal treatment in packing plants, food safety procedures, and advanced meat recovery techniques.
Although consumers may not want to know the precise details of meat processing, Schaefer says, “they want to have confidence that what we eat is safe.”
At AURI, education is “a natural outgrowth of our work—educating through science,” says Amanda Wanke, AURI communications director. “We help educate food processors, so they can help educate consumers. We also work with the commodity groups to bring a science perspective to consumer education.”
Beef’s Big 10 Nutrients
Source: Minnesota Beef Council
Helps your body use oxygen
Supports nervous system development
Helps preserve and build muscle
Helps protect cells from damage
5-6 VITAMINS B6 and B12
Helps maintain brain function
Helps maintain a health immune system
Helps build bones and teeth
Supports energy production and metabolism
Helps convert food into fuel