Making the Cut

CONSUMERS CAN AGREE that a perfectly cooked steak or hamburger is delicious. But good for you too? Ah there's the rub. Retailers and the meat industry want to change some minds. They've seen concerns over health, food safety and animal welfare increase in recent years, and are fighting back with a generous dose of healthful marketing. Our customers are looking for quality meat products, but they also

CONSUMERS CAN AGREE that a perfectly cooked steak or hamburger is delicious. But good for you too? Ah… there's the rub.

Retailers and the meat industry want to change some minds. They've seen concerns over health, food safety and animal welfare increase in recent years, and are fighting back with a generous dose of healthful marketing.

“Our customers are looking for quality meat products, but they also want to know that what they put into their bodies is good for them,” said Ryan Nilsson, meat department manager at Geissler's Supermarkets, which operates seven stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

It was this thinking that led Nilsson to start putting nutrition labels on his fresh cuts of meat two years ago. Like the Nutrition Facts panels that appear on all grocery items, the labels list everything from fat content to cholesterol, as well as the amounts of beneficial nutrients like protein, iron and vitamin B-12. Nilsson said he frequently sees shoppers turning over meat packages to read the labels. People have also told him they're surprised to see that certain cuts aren't as unhealthy as they'd thought. Seniors, meanwhile, appreciate being able to see the sodium content.

“It's about transparency, and helping people realize that a lot of beef items aren't as bad for them as they believe,” said Nilsson.

What shoppers believe has been established by extensive research over the past couple decades linking red meat consumption to heart disease and other illnesses. The American Institute of Cancer Research, for one, recommends that people eat no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week. So while all those steaks, hamburgers and ribeyes may be an American tradition, they're also seen by many people as an indulgence.

The meat industry, meanwhile, isn't taking any of this sitting down. It's been working diligently to convey the message that while red meat may not be exactly “good for you,” it's not as bad as people think.

“Consumers don't think beef can fit the bill, but in fact it is a great source of lean protein, and that's the message we're trying to get out there,” said Kim Essex, senior vice president of marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, part of the Beef Checkoff program.

It was the checkoff program that started the nutrition labeling initiative utilized by Geissler's and other supermarkets back in 2007, and they've been courting retailers ever since. More recently, the organization began an advertising campaign called “Profiles” that focuses on the more than two dozen lean cuts of beef — 29 to be exact — available in the supermarket. The ads combine beef's traditional bold attitude with a healthy flair: A freshly cooked filet mignon sharing a plate with a side salad and plum tomatoes; ground beef mixed in with a stew of summer vegetables. At the top is the name of each featured cut, in a brand-style stamp, along with the tagline “29 Lean Cuts. One Powerful Protein.”

“Profiles” will run through September across print and digital media outlets. The checkoff program also ran an “I Heart Beef” campaign around Valentine's Day, and features a host of healthful resources on its website, from the “Healthy Beef Cookbook” to a “What Science Says” section.

“Consumers, frankly, love beef, and want to put it on their plates and feel good about that choice,” said Essex.

The beef with beef extends beyond just nutrition facts, however. According to a recent study from West Texas A&M University, one-third of consumers believe that eating animals treated with antibiotics will create resistance to those drugs. Indeed, the issue of sub-therapeutic treatment given to animals has quickly made its way into the mainstream. The “CBS Evening News” ran a two-part special earlier this year that cast a none-too-flattering light on factory farming and its use of antibiotics. Last year, Congress introduced House Bill 1549, aimed at phasing out the use of antibiotics unless producers can prove they're not harmful to human health. And in June, the Food and Drug Administration issued a draft guidance that recommended banning the use of antibiotics to promote growth in animals.

“Antimicrobial resistance, and the resulting failure of antimicrobial therapies in humans, is a mounting public health problem of global significance,” the draft guidance document stated.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and other industry groups, in response, say that the science to support these claims hasn't been established.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a multifaceted and extremely complex issue that cannot be adequately addressed by solely focusing on the use of these medications in animal agriculture,” the NCBA stated in a press release.

Still, the fact remains that many shoppers are concerned. Ken Chapin, meat and seafood director at Yoke's Fresh Market, Spokane, Wash., has seen this firsthand.

“I get quite a few questions from customers about how our beef is handled prior to slaughter,” said Chapin. “I don't know how much it's affecting their buying, but it's definitely on their minds.”

To address these concerns, many retailers offer natural and organic lines of meat. But even that's a tough proposition, since organic is expensive, and the ‘natural’ label has gained a reputation for being loosely regulated. So companies have had to go more in-depth with their claims. Manufacturers have begun clarifying their practices by adding additional claims like “made without hormones or antibiotics.” Yoke's offers a line of “never-ever” labeled meats, which indicate that the animals never received antibiotics or hormones, even during the finishing process. Chapin also carries a line of meat seasonings that are free of artificial ingredients like phosphates and nitrites.

At Dorothy Lane Market, Columbus, Ohio, meat department manager Jack Gridley stocks only natural and organic meats, including an extensive private-label line and specialty items like gourmet hamburgers and beef kebabs. Gridley said there's a story behind every item he stocks, whether it's how the animals were raised or what the difference between natural and organic is, and he makes sure to tell it through signage, in ad circulars and on the company's website.

“Education for us is constant,” he explained. “You think everyone knows and gets the mission, but you just have to continuously educate people about it.”

Dorothy Lane Market, Yokes, Hannaford and other retailers have also been working hard to promote their locally raised selections. Hannaford airs a “Close to Home” podcast on its website that profiles local producers. There's also a section covering organic and natural beef that assures customers that the company's Nature's Place private-label line, sourced locally from Wolf's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine, “is USDA-certified natural, which means the animals are raised using only environmentally sound methods and are never given antibiotics, growth hormones or animal by-products.”

Chapin, meanwhile, stocks Hereford beef raised on nearby farms in Montana and Idaho. He says the best way to reassure customers and educate them about these and other meat products is to introduce them to the manufacturers, whether through signage, on packages or in person.

“We have what we call a ‘Beef Blitz’ every year,” said Chapin. “We'll run ads on a couple local meat items, then have the ranchers come in and do a demo with those. Customers can talk to them about the Hereford breed and how they raise them, and that's always a fun time.”

GOOD ADVICE

  • Consider using nutrition labels on primal cuts to highlight healthful nutrients.

  • Adopt a strategy from the produce department and bring producers into the store.

  • Use signage, ad circulars and other resources to keep shoppers udated on what various labels mean.