Do Americans Have A Beef With Beef?

The 21st century has seen the rise of Meatless Monday, the demonization of the “factory farm system”, and an announcement from the World Health Organization that red and processed meat may cause cancer. It hasn’t been a good couple of decades for what was once America’s favorite main course: beef.

According to USDA data relayed by the National Chicken Council, beef consumption peaked in 1976 when the average American consumed 94 pounds of it per year. That number has fallen steadily ever since, hitting 53 pounds per capita in 2015. Although estimates for 2016 are slightly higher at 54.3 pounds, the numbers are still lower than at any time since the USDA starting keeping those records in 1960. What’s more, Americans are eating dramatically more poultry as their beef consumption has fallen off. Chicken overtook beef as America’s favorite meat in 1992.

Beef’s Boom and Bust

Making it even more difficult for restaurants and retailers to profit on beef, the commodity’s prices have increased almost as steadily as its popularity has tanked – until just recently, that is. Prices peaked in September 2015 at over $2.70 a pound on the commodity market. Since then, they’ve fallen to as low as $1.60 a pound at the beginning of this year and have ticked only slightly upward to trade at an average of $1.77 a pound in April.

The beef market has displayed such volatility in the past few months that it prompted suspicions among producers that the nation’s biggest meatpackers may have colluded to make prices artificially low. That accusation is now being investigated by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Professional analyses implicate factors like record cattle weights and an increase in high-frequency trading as the reasons for last fall’s sudden spike and crash.

Betting on Beef

Whether they’re temporary or here to stay, those lower prices have led operators to market with renewed vigor dishes that have historically had notoriously slim margins. And while beef’s reputation may not be as strong as it once was, restaurateurs have plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the protein, especially when it comes to marketing to younger consumers.

According to research funded by the Beef Checkoff and performed by YPulse, millennials consume at least as much beef as their parents, maybe even more. The research finds 9 out of 10 say they consume it at least monthly, helping put to bed fears that millennials are averse to eating red meat.

The key word in millennials’ beef preferences appears to be “fresh.” That’s squarely in line with their broader eating habits and should surprise no one, but young adults also seem to be much more concerned with how the animal is raised. “Grass fed” is another term that kept popping up in the YPulse research, with 27 percent of millennials declaring “how cattle are fed” has the greatest impact on the quality of beef. That was the most common response out of several options, even more so than “how the beef is cooked.”

When it comes to how beef is prepared, three words that millennials’ associate strongly with quality are “grilled,” “wood fired,” and “seasoned.” Skill in preparation is a major factor when it comes to millennials choosing to order beef. If they’re going to be expected to pay the higher prices associated with steak, they want to know that the product has been handled by an expert, seasoned with care, and cooked to their expectations in a way that does justice to the food.

Trends like the “better burger” movement and a renewed interest in comfort foods and regional cuisine give chefs reason to feel optimistic about the future of their beef menu. Furthermore, “Artisan Butchery” and “New Cuts of Meat” both made the National Restaurant Association’s list of top 2016 food trends, providing proof that there’s still plenty of opportunity for creativity when it comes to serving red meat.

Boosting Beef’s Presence on Your Menu

If you’re looking to capitalize on easing beef prices and get creative with beef dishes, consider taking advantage of these beef trends in addition to your tried-and-true steaks and stews.

It might seem bizarre to talk about “new” cuts of beef, but experts in the beef industry have invested significant resources over the past two decades into developing innovative ways to butcher beef. These efforts have been focused primarily on getting more value from the chuck and round primal cuts, the ones that have traditionally been considered more suitable for cheaper products like ground beef and roasts instead of steaks.

The result of that work has been more than a dozen new cuts of beef that can be marketed as alternatives to traditional steak cuts, bought and sold at lower costs to target customers who want to order steak but are turned off by the higher cost of sirloin, ribeye, and filet. These new products include cuts with menu-friendly names like the San Antonio and Delmonico steaks and the Sierra, Denver, Tucson, Santa Fe, and Merlot cuts.

Don’t feel like beef has to be limited to your main course offerings. Diners are curious to try creative new starters and side items that include beef as a main ingredient. Salads are still perceived as a healthier alternative to other entrees, but the protein of choice is no longer limited to chicken. Steak salads are becoming a popular choice for diners who are looking for healthier but still flavorful and filling meals.

Explore places for beef on your appetizer list, as well. In addition to classics like seasoned ground beef nachos and tacos, first-course shareables like hamburger sliders and steak medallions can get beef onto that part of your menu that’s sometimes slim on protein but flush with possibilities.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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