A monthly column written for Beef Central by US meat and livestock industry commentator Steve Kay, publisher of US cattle buyers’ Weekly
THE US beef industry was in big trouble. The role of beef in a healthy diet was under attack from consumer groups, nutritionists and many more. As if this wasn’t bad enough, meat scientists discovered that one in four steaks were tough. Little wonder that beef demand went into a tailspin.
These were the huge challenges the industry faced in the 1980s and 1990s. Commendably, it turned these challenges into opportunities to transform US beef production from the ranch to beef processing plants. Today, that transformation has returned beef to being King of the Retail Meat Case and to being the American consumers’ favourite meat, by a long way.
The US has long been the producer of the most grainfed beef in the world. But the remarkable improvement in its quality and consistency over the past 20 years has also cemented the US’s position as the global leader in the highest quality beef.
Many factors have gone into the transformation, including improved genetics, scientifically-advanced cattle feeding practices and financial incentives by processors to encourage US and Canadian cattle producers to raise the carcase quality of their cattle.
The results of this huge effort are tangible today in several ways. The US currently has 12 million cattle in feedlots, versus just over one million head on feed in Australia.
It harvests about half a million grainfed steers and heifers per week. Despite these huge numbers, there is a carcase uniformity and quality today that could only have been dreamed 20 years ago.
Take quality grading for example. Cattle in the week ended February 20 graded a combined 86.07 percent USDA Prime or USDA Choice. Cattle graded 11.73pc Prime and 74.34pc Choice.
This broke the previous record of 84.76pc set the week ended February 10. These exceptional percentages reflect extra intra-muscular fat or marbling in carcases (measured in the US at the 12th ribeye). The increase over 20 years has also coincided with a huge decline in exterior fat on carcases.
USDA Prime beef in grocery stores used to be impossible to find, as a meager supply all went to white tablecloth restaurants. But with twice as much USDA Prime percentage-wise being produced than ten years ago, it can now be found in many stores around the country. Warehouse giant Costco remains by far the largest seller of USDA Prime and was a big reason why more Prime is being produced.
Now consider how retail beef prices compare to the price of other proteins. So far this year, US retail beef demand and sales has been stellar, even though retail prices in January were slightly higher than in December.
USDA’s retail Choice beef price averaged US$6.41 per pound, up 1.9pc from December’s US$6.29 per pound and up 5.8pc from January last year.
USDA’s All Fresh beef price averaged US$6.29 per pound, up 1pc from December and up 5.9pc from January last year.
In comparison, pork average prices were the same as in December at US$4.12 per pound but were up 7.3pc from January last year. Chicken average prices edged up two cents to US$2.03 per pound and were 8.6pc higher than last year.
This meant the All Fresh beef price was more than three times higher than the average chicken price and 1.5 times higher than the average pork price. These price differentials have rarely changed in recent years, apart from at the height of the impact of COVID-19 on prices last spring.
But it again reveals that beef remains Americans’ favourite meat by far and they are prepared to pay up for it.
Beef wins out in consumer research
New research from three prominent agricultural economists also bears this out. Consumers in a 3000-person study rated beef, in steak or ground form, at higher scores than a plant-based option in 15 categories, measuring everything from taste and appearance to perceptions of healthfulness and environmental impact.
Beef even came out ahead of the plant-based option in the category of animal welfare.
Respondents in the study scored the product on a scale from the beef product being much better or better than a plant-based option, and on the other end of the spectrum, plant-based rating much better or better than beef. There also was an option to rate them equally. Beef ranked higher on taste, appearance, price, naturalness, ingredient list, freshness, nutrition, convenience, origin/traceability, hormone-free/antibiotic-free, safety, animal welfare, sustainability, health and environmental impact.
The wide-ranging study also found that consumers reported choosing conventional beef about three times more often than plant-based meat alternatives when buying protein. Asked to recall what they had eaten the previous day, one in six respondents reported eating a plant-based protein item while roughly one half said they had consumed beef.
While the industry should not under-estimate the inroads that plant-based proteins might make in the future, beef appears to be under little threat right now as America’s favorite protein.