|By Ed Murrieta, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 22, 2004 - It's what's for dinner.
That's the beef industry's sales pitch.
But what is "it"?
Is it Prime? Choice? Corn-fed? Grass-fed? Angus? Certified Angus? Hormone-free? Free-range? Wet aged? Dry aged? Is it that expensive Japanese stuff that makes foodies drool like Homer Simpson in a Hereford harem?
Really, what's the beef? Or, more precisely, what's the beef marketing program?
With high-protein diets pushing beef demand to record levels, the level of beef marketing aimed at consumers is higher than the value of prized bull semen.
Beef has moved beyond the commodity corral into the branded arena. Read meat labels today and you'll find more than just USDA grading. (In some cases, you won't even find USDA information, which some beef producers say is inadequate for modern marketing.) It's not simply beef that's for dinner -- it's Certified Angus Beef, it's Safeway's Rancher's Reserve, it's Albertsons' Blue Ribbon, it's Misty Isle Farms, Niman Ranch and scores of other brands.
Confused? Patti Brumbach, executive director of the Washington State Beef Commission, thinks consumers should be thankful.
"Some of it can be just marketing, but when you put your name on a product you have to stand behind the quality or you will not get the repeat purchase," Brumbach said.
"I think it's healthy for consumers because they get more choices," said Jan Busboom, professor of meat science at Washington State University in Pullman. "Years ago, the producers' selection programs and management systems were based upon how they could sell more beef for less cost. Now that we're getting feedback on quality and tenderness, beef producers are incorporating that into their selection and feeding decisions. That's good."
It also drives up the price of dinner. At a Fred Meyer supermarket in Tacoma, for example, a commodity ribeye steak with no USDA grading information on the label retails for $8.98 per pound in the packaged meat section. A Certified Angus Beef brand ribeye in the butcher's case is $11.98, although customers have to know (or read further down in this article to learn) that CAB meat is USDA choice.
Since 1923, the United States Department of Agriculture has graded beef as Prime, Choice, Select, all the way down to Utility, based on the amount of marbling -- the flavor-giving, tenderizing fat -- in muscle cuts. Approximately 2 percent of all beef produced and sold in the United States carries the Prime grade, which must have a minimum of 8 percent marbling. More than 50 percent of beef falls into the broad Choice category, which includes benchmarks for moderate, modest and small marbling. Thirty-four percent of Choice grade falls into the latter marbling classification, just above Select.
It's not just brand names that have emerged: New cuts like tri-tips and flat irons have taken their place alongside T-bones and New Yorks. That 1980s trend toward leaner cuts? That's mostly gone the way of angular hair cuts. Marbling is back.
"I don't directly remember what beef was like 50 years ago, but there is no question that in the 1950s, a lot of the beef in the U.S. had more marbling," Busboom said. "In the '70s and the '80s, all the branded beef programs, except Certified Angus Beef, were lean programs. And almost all of them have failed, whereas Certified Angus Beef is quite strong."
Or, as Brumbach said, "Angus is gold."
Certified Angus Beef is a dominant meat-and-butcher-counter brand and is served in premium steakhouses like the El Gaucho chain, which has a restaurant in Tacoma. Certified Angus Beef's specifications for marbling and maturity are certified by the USDA, and most of its meat is Prime grade or within the top realm of Choice.
Burger King's new Angus burger indeed comes from Angus cattle stock but isn't Certified Angus Beef -- a distinction the Manhattan, Kan., co-op of beef producers is quick to point out. "Not all Angus is equal," it says, noting that an Angus label doesn't ensure genetic purity, as the majority of cattle marketed in the United States are crossbred.
If Angus is gold, Kobe is platinum. Kobe beef, or more accurately, Wagyu beef, hails from Japan and is among the most salivated-over and most expensive meat on the market, fetching up to $100 per pound. It's already started to catch on in the United States, where the American-style steaks sell for $20-$40 per pound retail and $80 per restaurant entree.
(Wagyu -- pronounced wah-G'YOU -- is Japanese for "Japanese cattle." Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle raised in the Kobe prefecture. Americans commonly refer to any Wagyu beef as Kobe. Just like sparkling wine can't be called Champagne unless it comes from that French region, American producers adopt the "American Kobe-style" appellation.)
Wagyu beef is prized for its high amount of marbling and clean flavor -- some old-timers claim Wagyu beef tastes like beef used to taste before industrialized production, hormones and the quest for leanness took over.
"It's amazing, very clean, rich full-beef flavor," said Mark Hipkiss, executive chef at The Metropolitan Grill in Seattle, who buys Wagyu New York strips from Darling Down Farms in Australia for $53 per pound and sells them as $80 dinner specials.
"You pay the premium for primal cuts. For true beef lovers, it's a unique experience to try for a special occasion what unmistakably could be the best beef available. I'm not saying it's better than Prime, but some of the (Wagyu) is amazing for the marbling and the flavor that comes out of the marbling."
That's believable hype. What you shouldn't believe is the Kobe Myth: While some hobby producers feed their stock beer to stimulate their appetites during hot summer months and others massage their cows with sake to make their coats more attractive at market, large-scale Japanese producers and American-style Kobe producers are not giving their cattle a frat boy's dream life.
"First of all, on the massaging and beer thing: We market with full disclosure, but we don't go out of our way to dispel the myth," said Jay Theiler, marketing director of Snake River Farms, a Boise, Idaho, producer of American-style Kobe, whose steaks and hamburgers are sold at upscale supermarkets and upper-end restaurants.
"The point of entry for most people is that they've heard about this Japanese cattle that's massaged. We just joke with people and tell them that if we had a lot of extra time we'd massage them, too, but we're too busy trying to make a living."
Snake River Farms is among a handful of American-style Kobe beef producers in the United States, having imported and bred Wagyu bulls with American Angus stock about a decade ago. It's selling its product to restaurants and high-end supermarkets.
American-style Kobe cattle are fed a mixture of grains like corn and barley, plus roughage like alfalfa hay. They're fed longer than conventionally raised cattle -- up to 500 days as opposed to 120 days. This long-and-slow method increases the amount of marbling in the meat. In turn, it increases costs. American-style Kobe ribeyes and New Yorks, for example, sell for up to $27.99 a pound and tenderloins up to $37.99 at Metropolitan Market in Federal Way.
"It's not just the Kobe genetics, it's the long feeding program," Theiler said. "The industry is so geared toward efficiency and yield that they'll pump cows full of hormones to get them to grow faster. We just don't push the animal like that."
Busboom, who consults with American Wagyu producers, said Wagyu genetics have improved since the first batch of bulls arrived in the United States from Japan in 1976.
"Japan did not send us their best genetics," he said. "In the '90s we were able to import more modern Japanese genetics. The difference between Japanese Wagyu and the best American Wagyu is not that great anymore."
While Snake River Farms and other American-style Kobe producers' facilities are subject to USDA inspection, don't look for Prime grading of its American-style Kobe beef, even though products such as Snake Rivers' have more than enough marbling to qualify as Prime.
"Basically, the government system is inadequate for our marketing," Theiler said. "If we asked the USDA to grade our meat, we would end up with Prime on everything we produce. We house-grade our meat on a scale that has three levels above Prime."
The USDA is responding to such marketing-driven attitudes. The department's Agricultural Marketing Service recently culled industry consensus for voluntary labeling standards on marketing claims related to feeding, aging and geographic sourcing. Once the standards wend through USDA bureaucracy -- an agency official wouldn't guess when that would be -- a producer that claims its beef is 100 percent grass-fed and complies with a process to back it will earn a USDA verification stamp on its label.
"These are factors that aren't readily discernible in the carcass form," said William T. Sessions, the Agricultural Marketing Service's associate deputy administrator. "With something like 'Midwestern beef," there's no way that a grader standing on the line could determine that that carcass was derived from Midwestern-raised beef. There has to be a process in place where that can be verified."
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