A survey of consumers makes one thing abundantly clear: The beef industry could do a better job of marketing its product.
Beef producers want consumers to think that scientific advances make their food more affordable. But consumers think something else entirely: They worry about the impact of current beef production practices on the long-term health of their family.
That’s one of several examples of subjective dissonance between the beef industry and its end-users highlighted by John Lundeen, senior director of market research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a speech at today’s 2013 Cattle Industry Conference. Lundeen took much of his data from the Consumer Beef Index, a semi-annual survey designed to spot consumer trends NCBA has conducted since 2007.
Human health concerns
Lundeen pointed to one survey of American consumers that showed that 37% of American consumers worry about the unintended long-term health effects of eating beef grown with today’s scientifically advanced methods. Another 11% are concerned with the short-term impact. That adds up to nearly half the population.
That said, that the industry is doing a good job convincing consumers that beef consumption is safe, Lundeen said. An NCBA survey conducted earlier this year found that three out of four Americans believe that beef positives outweigh the negatives.
"This is a huge victory," he said, pointing to recent surveys that indicate the industry has "turned the corner" on concern over the E. coli virus. NCBA research shows that 47% of the U.S. population eats beef at least twice a week.
Unfortunately, there’s a new threat that lies on the horizon. "Now people, and the federal government, are starting to talk about salmonella," Lundeen said.
While most people now believe that beef is healthy, many wonder "whether other sources of protein are even healthier," Lundeen said. The industry wants mothers to believe that beef is the perfect food for young children. "Really, they ask?"
Surveys show that millennial parents prefer to feed chicken to their children under 10—74% prefer chicken, compared to 18% for beef. Their reasons range from "lower fat content" to "quicker to prepare."
"We must win the hearts of the Millennials," Lundeen said.
Animal health concerns
While ranchers want consumers to think that all antibiotic use in animal agriculture is good, only half of American consumers are comfortable with their use, even if an animal is sick. Half of American consumers are OK with antibiotic use if an animal gets sick, 43% when prescribed by a vet. But only 29% agree with the proactive use of antibiotics to prevent disease. "We all need to be responsible about the use of antibiotics," Lundeen said.
Most consumers have a negative impression of feedyards until they actually visit one, Lundeen said. "After you show people how the feedyards work, they like the way the industry does business," he said. "They are much more comfortable. They have assumed the worst."
The same goes for cattle herding and feeding. Consumers are more likely to correlate pictures of feedlots, feedbunks and syringes with beef industry practices than pictures of cattle grazing in pastures. The industry could do a lot to change perceptions, Lundeen said, by showing pictures on the web and in brochures of cattle grazing and of people, not machines, feeding animals.
Changes in dining habits
In the meantime, major change has occurred in American dining habits. Two-thirds of dinner menus are decided on the same day, and consumers freeze half the steaks and two-thirds of the ground beef they buy. Defrosting ground beef may be enough of a hassle that it may be left out of that night’s spaghetti sauce.
Lundeen noted that work is under way to produce cuts of beef and packaging for ground beef that’s easier to defrost or can be cooked frozen. With convenience such a big factor in deciding what’s for dinner, frozen buffalo wings and chicken tenders become tempting options.
"How do we put beef into what folks want to eat?" Lundeen asked, noting that hamburgers were the original solution to quick-cooking. Meatballs that can be pulled from the fridge and dropped in a sauce are another tempting, convenient option. Other solutions include thinner packing of ground beef that can be defrosted faster.
The industry also has a challenge keeping up with changing demographic patterns. Lundeen’s research, both empirical and through focus groups, shows that "thin cuts are a big deal" to Hispanic populations that know how to cook it properly. "Most people dry it out," he said.
In taste tests, most consumers say that marbled steak tastes better. Yet many consumers today are looking for lean cuts. Lean ground beef with only 10% fat content "is a big deal. But we have all these steaks that are 90/10, some 95/5. It’s a split market decision."