Larger carcasses ring alarm for beef industry

Some in the sector argue the increasing size of beef animals results in oversized steaks that consumers may not want

HOUSTON, Texas — The growing size of beef carcasses is a conundrum.

Producers get paid by the pound and there is little penalty for heavier carcasses that end up as larger cuts of beef that consumers may reject.

The 2016 U.S. beef quality audit examined 3.7 million carcasses and reported 39 percent were more than 900 pounds and 24 percent had rib eyes of more than 15 sq. inches.

“I consider this a problem,” said meat scientist Russell Cross of Texas A & M University at the recent International Livestock Congress held in Houston.

Larger steaks must be cut thinner to fit boxes and standardized packages. Consumer polls show people do not like thin cuts that spread across the plate. It could affect beef sales, he said.

“Large carcasses are problematic and are very likely affecting demand,” he said.

The Texas Beef Council commissioned a study on this issue so Cross and fellow meat scientist Gary Smith audited 54 stores and seven purveyor-distributors to ask them about size. They also found there were about 360 different names for the cuts that probably confused consumers.

There was not enough information on the packages and there is limited knowledge among retail staff on how to cook these products, especially from the chuck and round.

Consumers need more in-store information because they do not know the names of the cuts or realize eating quality of a round steak is different from tenderloin.

Purveyors were disappointed with size and weights of individual cuts as well as variability of sizes in a box.

“Purveyors believe even if packers begin to discount heavyweight carcasses, cattle feeders will not react because heavier weights will continue to decrease the price per pound,” he said.

He concluded that new ways are needed to package beef with clear instructions on cooking methods.

“If we don’t do that we are going to lose those consumers,” he said.

Canada faces similar problems and carcasses may be even larger here.

In the last Canadian beef quality audit, senior personnel in retail, food service and food distribution operations were asked about carcass size.

“Producing beef sub-primal of appropriate weight/dimensions” was listed as the aspect that survey respondents felt needed the most improvement, said Mark Klassen of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Obtaining beef with appropriate weight and dimensions was also rated as the fourth most important quality attribute in their beef procurement decisions behind only quality grade, pricing and Canadian origin, he wrote in an email.

Of those surveyed, 68 percent came from organizations that sell more than $10 million worth of beef in Canada each year and therefore represent an important perspective on beef quality attributes.

Carcass sizes have been increasing in Canada since about 1990 and that trend is not going to reverse itself, said Duane Ellard, executive director of business development in North America for Canada Beef.

“The 650 pound carcass is gone,” he said.

The organization has done considerable work at the food service and retail levels to learn new techniques in using bigger cuts of meat.

Canada developed labelling with recommended cooking methods included on packages of beef so consumers are told the product should be stewed, braised, grilled or marinated. However, this did not address the problem of overly large steaks that were too thin so that they fit into the weight specification of a six, eight or 12 ounce steak.

“In the 2000s this trend was moving forward and this was when we began our initiatives on how we address these carcass sizes through the butchery process,” he said.

“We are able to create a cutting procedure to not only address carcass size but plate size and portion size.”

They have developed new cutting techniques so something like the strip loin can be cut creatively to produce the appropriate weight and thickness. This avoids the problem of an oversized, but thin 12-ounce T-bone that is a half inch thick and covers the entire plate, he said.

New cutting techniques must be shared since fewer people are knowledgeable about preparing meat at home.

“Creating the solution is one of the things we do but we have to consider training and implementation with retailers and consumer education,” he said.

Carcasses may be large but there are little hidden gems found with new cutting approaches.

The petit tender is found in the shoulder. It is about the size of a pork tenderloin and is a tender, juicy steak from an area that can be tougher because the muscles are used for movement.

Packers are also doing muscle profiling. At one time there were just hinds and fronts, but new profiles help create interesting cuts like the flap steak and skirts.

“Our product is arguably the highest value protein in the counter so if (consumers) are making an investment in Canadian beef, they want a rate of return and a positive eating experience,” Ellard said.

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