The United States meat industry is renaming 350 cuts of beef and pork to provide a more uniform and consumer-friendly retail labelling system.
The move follows extensive consumer research by the Beef Checkoff and National Pork Board which showed consumers found existing names of meat cuts too lengthy and confusing, and in some cases even unappealing.
The research suggested that better meat labels could result in better meat sales, with 63pc of surveyed consumers indicating they were likely to try a new cut of meat after being introduced to the new names and labels, and 77pc saying they would go and find a store that used the new nomenclature.
The Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards (URMIS) was established in 1973 to provide a standardised nomenclature for every retail red meat item.
However, it was designed for the needs of retailers and butchers, and its heavy reliance on anatomical references has been blamed for creating ongoing confusion at retail level.
The confusion has presented a roadblock to shoppers, with research indicating that current labels left consumers wondering what was being offered, how to cook it, or even what animal it came from.
That in turn led to consumers resorting to a default option of buying the few cuts with which they were familiar, leaving more mysterious meats to languish in meat department freezers.
Beef Checkoff market intelligence director Trevor Amen explained to the US media this week that the old system did not communicate effectively to the consumer.
“If you’re a butcher or a meat cutter, you really know what part of the animal it comes from,” he said.
“But if you’re a consumer, you just want to know what it is and what to do with it.”
The new labeling system includes a “consumer-friendly” name for each cut, such as sirloin tip roast, loin roast or kabobs; relevant descriptors of its characteristics, such as "beef, bone-in," "pork, boneless," "pork, shoulder, boneless"; and a preparation method or other helpful information, such as "Grill for best results".
One example of how anatomically-based names have been given a more “consumer-friendly” overhaul involves the cut previously known as “beef bottom round heel side boneless”. It will now be called “merlot steak”.
A boneless shoulder top blade steak will become a flatiron steak and a beef under blade boneless steak will be known as a Denver steak.
In the pork cabinet, what was previously called pork butt – which does not actually come from the hindquarter but the shoulder – will now be called “Boston Roast”.
In some cases the new labels will also traverse species. A bone-in loin cut will be called a T-Bone whether its pork or beef.
The move is the first major overhaul of industry nomenclature in 40 years, and will be extended to include lamb and veal cuts in time.
The URMIS has always been a voluntary system in the US retail industry, but is used by 85pc of retail outlets. Retailers who do not employ it must use alternative, federally-approved labels or submit their own for inspection.
The new labels are expected to be introduced to meat cabinets by the approaching northern hemisphere summer, just in time for the peak US grilling season.
Recipe for confusion?
Some concerns have been raised as to whether the new changes may actually lead to even more confusion.
CNN’s food news website ‘eatocracy’, for example, asked whether consumers would understand what to buy when previously published cookbooks still referred to old cut names.
Would people know to buy a New York chop if a pork recipe calls for a top loin chop? And what about older cooks who grew up with legacy names, such as pork rump, now called leg sirloin?
“The intent certainly was not to confuse consumers, but there are some situations where that certainly could happen,” Bucky Gwartney, a federal agriculture marketing specialist who worked with the meat industry to formulate the changes, told the website.
“We tried to make sure even though some of these changes were fairly dramatic, they were still grounded in the original cut (of meat).”
Butcher questions need for Australia to follow US lead
There is no question that different names are often used to label the same cuts of meat in Australia, with variations particularly evident between states.
The AusMeat Domestic Retail Beef Register, most recently updated in May 2011, provides a comprehensive list of the different names that are considered acceptable descriptors for use at retail level for each cut of beef.
For example Striploin can also be referred to in Australia as Sirloin, Porterhouse, New York or Entrecote. Cube roll can also be called rib-eye, rib-fillet and scotch fillet.
Brisbane butcher Ray Kelso, who chairs the Australian Meat Industry Council's national retail council, told Beef Central yesterday he was aware of no plans in Australia to follow the US lead in renaming meat cuts.
He said variations between beef product names only tended to cause confusion when customers were shopping outside their local area. A shopper from Victoria for example would ask for a scotch fillet, which in Queensland was known as a rib-fillet.
Mr Kelso said he thought any move to change the name of meat cuts would only guarantee confusion.
“The only thing that is going to do really is confuse the consumer, because if you’re used to calling something rib fillet, and then you’re told you’ve got to call it something else, there is only one person that is going to be confused and it will be the public."
He believed efforts would be better focused on educating food suppliers and consumers on how to cook beef. Studies had shown that a consumer wanting a steak well done but served medium rare would describe the meat as terrible, even if it was the most tender piece of beef in the world.
“I think the public doesn’t really care about what its called,” Mr Kelso said. “If you wanted to confuse the public I think it would be the right way to go about it.”
A brief scrutiny of AusMeat’s trade description bible, the “Users Guide to Australian Meat” (edition 3 is the latest version provided to Beef Central), illustrates how easy it is to find potential for further misunderstanding, particularly when seaming primals into smaller sub-primals.
A case in point is the ‘top sirloin’ (AusMeat’s chosen descriptor), which in fact is not part of the sirloin, but is extracted as one of the five sub-primals from the rump group. Another is ‘chuck tender’ which is neither ‘tender’ nor from the 'chuck' primal.
Coles supermarkets general manager, meat, Allister Watson, said the process of naming cuts should really be driven by consumers, and what they most easily recognised.
While Coles does use different cuts terms in different states on a few items, based on local popular terms, predominantly they were the same from Tasmania to Townsville to Fremantle.
“Wherever we use centralised product cutting and packaging, we use pretty much the same cut name, with a couple of exceptions,” he said.
While traditionally Coles has used some different terms in different states, it will now use ‘scotch fillet’ to describe the rib fillet. For the sirloin, Coles has chosen the ‘porterhouse’ descriptor for universal application across Australia.
Mr Watson said in Coles’s view, the term, ‘New York cut’ most typically referred to a porterhouse steak that was thick-cut, bringing an additional element into the cuts description equation.
Having said that, it is not hard to find ‘New York Cut’ steaks in retail cabinets in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane that are cut quite thin.
Mr Watson said one of the current ‘flaws’ in the MSA grading system, relating to the proposed three four and five star, descriptor system, was that consumers clearly understood rump, sirloin or porterhouse, but did not understand the ‘star stuff.’
Essentially, they saw the cut descriptor as the quality determinant, rather than any star-based distinction.
“That’s how the retail sector has educated consumers over many years, and at the end of the day it is going to be hard to change that,” he said.
“Retailers also tend to look for a point of difference in how they describe certain cuts,” he said.
“But customers are generally pretty smart: they understand what the product is if they see it as a New York cut on a restaurant menu, and a porterhouse or sirloin in their local retail cabinet.”
A few restaurants might use terms like 'rib fillet' or 'striploin', but those terms were more reserved for use within the meat trade, he said.
“But I don’t think there is any real need to drive for uniformity across the whole industry, so long as the product holds up and delivers on quality.”
Foreshadowing outcomes from the MSA steering committee meeting on the optimisation model, Mr Watson said Coles held concerns over the current direction of the MSA program.
“It’s lost it’s way a wee bit,” he said. “It’s been opened-up so much for qualification now that anything can be called MSA, with a boning group 18 product that eats much worse than a lower boning group equivalent still being allowed to carry an MSA sticker.”
“Coles will continue to stand behind its quality, using a lot of the MSA principles, but calling it MSA at retail does not mean a hell of a lot from a consumer’s viewpoint, and no longer guarantees quality, in our opinion.”