There is a massive demand for protein and many product developers are turning to beef to meet the demand. As with the rest of the food industry, the meat industry is evolving to meet new consumer needs and preferences in this increasingly globalized economy.

The evolution comes from shifts in what today’s consumers value when they decide to purchase beef and other meats. In North America, the cuts of fresh meat consumers see in supermarkets have been relatively consistent for some time. Cuts such as the filet, New York strip, rib eye, T-bone, short ribs, porterhouse, and sirloin steak dominate.

These particular cuts often are designated as the high-value cuts because they are what consumers want, what they know how to cook, and what they’re willing to pay a premium for. The variety of cuts available in the grocery store has dwindled over the years because most consumers know less and less about the animals they consume.

“Many of our grandparents were poor enough to have to learn how to cook every part of the animal — nothing could be wasted,” notes Chef Kang Kuan, vice president–culinary for Chowbotics, Inc. and former research chef for Tyson Foods Co. “Unlike the prototypical modern family of two working parents and living far from the extended family, our grandparents had a larger circle of family members who could share the labor of parenting, preparing, and cooking. Many raised animals and kept gardens. Having more of a sense of connection to the food and land from which it came, they knew what went into raising food, and the work it took to raise and butcher animals.”

Today, consumer preference seems directed more by ease of use. “Americans consistently choose loin cuts of meat as well as chicken, not because of its nutrition value, but because they lack the time to cook anything but speediest cuts,” explains Kuan. “The financial need to eat every part of the animal is no longer as urgent as in our grandparents’ generation; our palates have migrated away from what we might now consider oddly textured or strong-tasting parts – especially offal – that are rich in nutrients.”


What Mooves Us

Comfort, convenience, and familiarity are three primary motivating factors that determine what a consumer values and thus what they purchase. Because of this, makers of products in which beef features prominently also gravitate toward the cuts that fit those parameters.

There are plenty of excellent cuts of meat that scare off processors because working with an unfamiliar cut of meat can be intimidating. As a rule, the cuts that are the most popular and most common are the most tender cuts on the animal. They usually come from the back, loin, and ribs in which there is less movement to toughen the muscle fibers, and so they also don’t have as much connective tissue. The tougher cuts of meat come from the animal’s shoulders and legs. These muscles are required for movement, so they are worked and stressed and contain more connective tissue.

Tender cuts, such as the loin, are better cooked by using direct dry heat — for example, grilling. The less-desired and lower value cuts often are tougher cuts of meat. They generally require moist cooking or require much longer cooking times to make them palatable, including marinating, braising, and sous vide. The irony is that the overlooked cuts often have the most flavor.

In contrast to home cooks, skilled professional chefs know the proper techniques (and have the time) to prepare some of the lesser used and less desired cuts of the animal. Some of the cuts common in restaurants but rarely used in prepared food products include flank steaks, hangar steaks, oxtail, and flat iron steaks, as well as offal such as liver.

Still, there has been increased demand, especially from meat enthusiasts, for some of the overlooked cuts that were traditionally considered low value. The BBQ culture in North America has blossomed over the last decade, while on TV and social media, chefs and home cooks have made mouthwatering videos and images of their accomplishments using less common cuts of beef and other meats.


Meaty Opportunities

This new accessibility kick-started consumer education of, and attraction to, these other cuts. Flank, hangar, and flat iron steaks, and oxtail have increased in prevalence and use. And since most food service establishments don’t have the resources or time to prepare items such as braised beef short ribs or smoked brisket, this leaves the field open for prepared food makers to fill the gap. Moreover, consumers also want these types of products available in convenience formats in retail, and the meat industry is answering the demand.

Depending on the type of product being manufactured, there are several common methods of further processing, including “injecting whole muscle pieces with brine and flavor solutions, marinating or tumbling with spices to coat the outside, [and] emulsifying to create a smooth, homogenous blend of ingredients like bologna,” says Stacie Waters, CEO/president of Bilinski Sausage Manufacturing Co. Smoking, curing, salting, and fermentation are also widely used methods.

“A few of the meat industry’s commonly processed beef cuts include the brisket, which is used in pastrami,” adds Manuel Persica III, a researcher at Louisiana State University School of Animal Sciences, Baton Rouge. “Muscles from the rounds and chucks can be ground individually or in varying combinations to produce different levels of ground beef products, and trimmings from the entire animal are used in sausages.”

Persica stresses that these products typically contain a lot of connective tissue and processing them requires time, specialized equipment, and a fair amount of labor. “Due to these extra considerations required to produce a palatable and pleasant product, those cuts are relatively inexpensive when fresh,” he says.

The jerky and snack stick industry, experiencing a huge increase in popularity in recent years, also makes use of trim and lower-value cuts to create value-added product. Such products often are heavily processed and strongly spiced, so the leaner, less tender meat cuts are more than suitable. These cuts are ground fine enough to break up the connective tissue. For the more “upscale” whole-muscle jerky products, portions of the round, brisket, and flank steak are recommended.


A Cut Above

Sausages, other ground meat products, and other processed meats continue to be industry mainstays, yet the industry is evolving to include more upscale products as well. “While the value of different cuts is based on their composition — primarily the amount of connective tissue — we no longer can say that lower-value cuts are the only ones used in processed meats,” notes Kenneth McMillin, professor emeritus of animal sciences at Louisiana State. “There is an ever-increasing demand for processed and prepared products that are derived from high value cuts.

With the advent of new technologies, such as large-scale sous vide cooking, this new demand for higher-value cuts to be included in convenience meat products is being reflected in new lines of prepared and processed beef offerings. One notable example of this is sous vide prime rib, rib eye, and beef tenderloin, says McMillin. Sous vide meats that are already flavored and cooked are gaining notice from even white tablecloth food service concerns.

Whether such a sous vide product is provided to restaurants, retailers, or food product manufacturers for further processing, the end user needs only to removes the meat from the vacuum-sealed bag, bring it to temperature, and sear or grill it, and it’s ready to serve. Start to finish can be as rapid as 5-10 minutes.

The value of a sous vide beef product is not only in the reduction of labor and cook time – for a large prime rib, savings are in hours – but it also allows less-qualified cooks to handle the task. Moreover, it offers consistency: All meat will be cooked the same and cut to the correct size every time. Consistency is crucial for the success of nearly any product.

“Sous vide technology has also helped with portioning and food safety, because the food is cooked and packaged in manageable sizes and sous vide proteins have longer shelf lives compared to their raw counterparts,” adds Chowbotics’ Kuan.

“We’ve seen a big desire for nicer pieces of meat, especially during the holiday seasons,” confirms Sarah Watkins, R&D director for the private label manufacturer VSM Brands, Inc. “In response, we’ve been offering a chateaubriand.” A chateaubriand is a large, center-cut filet from the beef tenderloin. It’s larger than a standard filet and is meant to serve multiple people.

Watkins notes that chateaubriand is an expensive cut of meat and rarely encountered outside of a restaurant. The sous vide process takes the guesswork out of it, so the end user does not have to worry about messing up a high-dollar cut of beef.

Advances in prep and cooking techniques allow protein processors to be more versatile in the products they make. For example, adding grill marks gives an authentic restaurant-cooked look to proteins, and roasted appearances are added using impingement ovens. “We have seen the benefits of big impingement oven/freezer systems that broil or create grill marks, and then individually quick-freeze proteins in a continuous and efficient run,” explains Watkins.

Not only has equipment helped Watkins and her team at VSM Brands, but specific techniques and ingredients they use also help facilitate production and create a superior product. For example, during the tumbling or injection step in the production of breaded entrees, they add engineered starches to help form a tactile surface and promote adherence of the breading system.


Welfare Matters

Over the years, animal welfare has become an increasing important issue for the meat industry. Consumers are much more aware of the consequences of raising and processing meat products. The industry has responded to consumers’ interest in where their meat comes from, how the animals are treated, and what is being done to minimize impacts on the environment.

But animal welfare is also crucial to meat processors. Mistreating animals is obviously wrong from an ethical standpoint, but it also negatively affects the bottom line. It is in farmers’ and processors’ best interest to take care of their animals. Cared for, stress-free animals produce superior meat, plain and simple. Animals that are sick or not fed properly won’t put on weight. Stressed animals may produce meat plagued by discoloration, an undesirable soft texture, and reduced water-binding properties. Stressed and abused animals produce a lower quality product and command a lower price.

Dutch-owned VanDrie Group has focused its mission on quality, sustainability, and animal welfare. The Group, comprised of 25 companies, is the world’s largest integrated veal producer. It has a premium product line whose packaging provides a link to a website that has a live video feed of the farm where the meat came from. The consumer can see the conditions of the animals themselves. 

The VanDrie Group is not alone in caring about animal welfare. It’s an industry-wide concern, and manufacturers do care. “As a consumer, making the choice to thoughtfully purchase your beef, knowing where it comes from and how the cattle are raised are ways to help support the sustainability efforts in the industry,” notes Nicole Schumacher of Pre Brands, LLC. Pre’s beef is naturally raised and grass-fed. The farmers raise their cattle in natural environments in a way that contributes to land rejuvenation via techniques such as rotational grazing.

Sustainability is key to the future of the meat industry. Processed meat products reflect one aspect of sustainability because they utilize lower-value proteins responsibly and profitably. The VanDrie Group’s veal processing business comes at sustainability from another angle, providing an answer to the 1.4 million male calves unfit for milk production in a country with a huge dairy industry.

There are other challenges tackled by the meat industry to respond to changing consumer preferences. While the majority of consumers still enjoy animal protein, many are opting for a more flexitarian diet, and the big manufacturers such as Tyson Foods, Inc., Hormel Foods Co., and Perdue Farms Co. are now marketing blended meat and vegetable products – such as burgers constructed of anywhere from one-third to two-thirds beef and the balance a plant-based ground beef analog – to capitalize on the trend.

Challenges exist on the other end as well. While some consumers are looking to reduce their animal protein intake, there are also those who are adopting diets such as ketogenic and paleo that promote high meat consumption and minimal carbohydrate intake. Chef Kuan notes that the meat industry is striving to create value-added proteins that will replace carbohydrate-based foods to appeal to this segment of consumers.

Globalization also is having an impact on the meat industry, as consumers seek new ethnic cuisine experiences and flavor profiles. Within those ethnic cuisines, the traditional cuts used are different than what you find in continental or American cuisine. Korean cuisine is a prime example. Until recently, it was nearly unknown in North America, outside of a few cities with sizable Korean communities. The rise in this cuisine’s popularity has exposed people to dishes such as Korean short ribs, or Galbi-style ribs.

Korean short ribs are flanken cut short ribs thinly cut across the rib bones to leave a strip of meat with multiple bones throughout. The ribs are then marinated and grilled. This cut was uncommon in North America, but is now highly popular. Marinated and precooked Korean short ribs can now be found ready to heat and eat in mainstream supermarkets across the country.

Such ethnic cuisine influences will increasingly impact the meat industry moving into the future. Different cuts and preparations commonly consumed in other parts of the world will only grow in consumers’ awareness and their demands. And when the demand is there, industry responds.

Not Ready For Prime Time

With the prime cuts primarily sold fresh in supermarkets, plenty of other cuts and trim remain for value-added and processed beef products and beef-centered meals and appetizers. The manufacturing of value-added meat products requires adherence to strict regulation, food science, and food safety. Proteins are especially challenging because of the natural variability from one animal to the next. Advances in herd management, genomics, and selective breeding have helped minimize the natural variability seen in animals, but some remains.

Processors must consider numerous factors when manufacturing products for batch production. For example, the ratio of fat to lean protein is critical, especially in emulsions and ground products, such as sausages and hot dogs. “The number of defects in the meat, the type and amount of connective tissue, the intermuscular and intramuscular fat content, and the age of the animal when processed are also very important factors,” explains Manuel Persica III, a researcher at Louisiana State University’s School of Animal Sciences, Baton Rouge.

Originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Prepared Foods as Beef: Still What's for Dinner.