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Beef checkoff dollars helping create new cuts

Feb. 21, 2013 | 0 comments

Jan Shepel

Associate Editor


The story of beef production in the United States is one of efficiency. Producers are bringing more beef to the market with fewer cattle per year. That means that cattle and carcass sizes are increasing.

John Freitag, executive director of the Wisconsin Beef Council, said that the average carcass is now weighing something over 830 pounds.

One of the problems with that is that chefs and retail purchasers often "don’t want a huge steak that hangs over the plate," he said.

In response to that, beef checkoff dollars have been used to work with meat cutters in retail and food service settings to find new ways to break the carcass down and demonstrate new cuts that will not only meet the need for smaller, leaner steaks but will also provide more profit.

This Beef Alternative Merchandizing (BAM) project has focused on the top sirloin and the strip steak portions.

"Consumers look at beef differently than they used to and they are also eating less," Freitag said. They also have concerns about healthy eating.

Beef experts worked with the American Heart Association to see if they could produce some leaner beef products that could get the group’s seal of approval. Turns out two lean steaks have already received the Heart Association’s certification as heart healthy and Freitag said they hope to have four more certified as "lean and healthy."

Retailers are allowed to sell these steaks with the Heart Association certification materials as long as they pay a fee to them each year, he explained.

Steve Leigh has been working with retailers and food service people to demonstrate how added cuts can lead to more profit. He and Freitag talked about the project on Friday, Feb. 15 at the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s and Cattlewomen’s Associations’ Winter Conference in Wisconsin Dells.

A veteran of 35 years with Albertson’s, a large grocery chain on the West Coast, he now works with Channel Marketing in the Twin Cities. Using a very sharp knife, he cut a top sirloin into a variety of steaks to demonstrate the kinds of things consumers prefer today.

He emphasized Freitag’s point that consumers don’t want giant cuts of meat but would rather have more portion-controlled items, especially as the price of beef rises in the store.



Using a top sirloin in the select grade he showed how the top sirloin tip and bottom round look. They are the two cuts that have gotten the "heart healthy" certification.

Leigh said the checkoff program did the research and has taken that out to retailers and food service, as a way to increase the value of beef. If retailers can make more money on the carcasses they already have, it will buoy the market for beef, the theory goes.

"Retailers have a lot of waste and using this system they can get more variety out of the top sirloin and use the whole piece," Leigh said.

Using this method, he added, retailers have added $2 per pound to the top sirloin.

One of the ways they can add value is by taking rectangular cuts of meat and running them through a "jet net" – a stretchy mesh net that pulls the meat together. Once the meat is netted and cut in small sections, it can be sold as individual steaks.

"When we started this project, focus groups in California, Denver and Florida told us they would pay more for the netted piece of meat. I think it makes the cut look more like a filet mignon."

This new system of getting more out of the select-grade top sirloin also produces new products for the retail meat case, he said, and these netted steaks are viewed by consumers as something like veal or lamb. "They’re not replacing any choice cuts."

Leigh also demonstrated how retailers can get more value out of a New York strip steak by cutting the strip in half and applying the net to those sections. Again, consumers said they would pay more for the netted portions of steak.

"It adds variety out of one cut, but I’ve had some meat cutters who just don’t want to cut that strip in half," he said with a smile.

When they do, product names and UPC bar codes have been created for the new cuts.



Freitag said other work by the beef checkoff has focused on the Beef Optimum Lean Diet (BOLD) diet, a project with Penn State University.

"There are lots of benefits from beef that we haven’t spent a lot of time looking at," he said. Attitudes are shifting, even among cardiologists and heart surgeons, who understand that lean beef can be part of a healthy diet.

Some of those doctors are even prescribing tenderloin steak after a heart attack, Freitag said.

Closer to home, Freitag said checkoff dollars were used to help sponsor a Discover Wisconsin television program on local meat markets. The beef program collaborated with the Wisconsin Pork Association and Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors to highlight the importance of local meat markets.

"Wisconsin has a higher recognition of local meat markets than other states and we wanted to help bring more visibility to those local businesses."

Wisconsin Beef Council also produced a 30-minute video for elementary school teachers to help them develop lesson plans around beef. "We want to make sure our message about the beef industry is getting out."

Freitag said there are lots of videos available about beef production in Western states, but they wanted to show how beef is produced in Wisconsin. They are available through the Wisconsin Education Network.

"We need to have more conversations about the beef industry."

The checkoff-sponsored Animal Care Training and Beef Quality Assurance programs as well as projects with bovine practitioners are other ways the industry is trying to get the word out.

"We need to show consumers that beef producers are trying to improve themselves. They want to hear from somebody who is actually producing the product.

"We need to understand that conversation."

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