Beef is a healthy choice, researchers seek to meet demands of health-conscious consumers, after pink slime accusations
March 23, 2012
Pink slime helped give red meat a black eye last week.
But this past week’s setbacks – also including the release of a Harvard University study that concluded red meat was associated with a greater chance of dying -only reiterated to Dale Woerner that the beef industry has punches of its own to throw back.
He said the industry must stress the message that’s been a focus of his research: Beef is a healthy choice.
Woerner, an assistant professor and meat specialist at Colorado State University, has led research efforts at CSU that have explored the health benefits of beef and examined cattle carcasses to discover ways of producing leaner and smaller beef cuts that might appeal to the growing number of Americans seeking healthier options – helping keep the beef industry from losing more of its share in the domestic market.
“Beef has plenty of nutritional benefits to offer … but that tends to get lost in everything else that’s said about the industry,” Woerner said, just days after the Harvard study and an outcry over so-called pink slime that is used to supplement ground beef in school lunches in some parts of the country.
Beef demand in the U.S. is only about half of what it was in the 1980s, Woerner noted, a decrease stemming primarily from health concerns – specifically those that connect red-meat consumption to heart disease. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show America’s beef intake peaked in 1976 with a per capita consumption of 89 pounds.
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By 2000, the amount dropped to 64 pounds, as chicken consumption rose swiftly to 50 pounds.
As a result of the decline in domestic beef consumption, along with drought and other factors, the U.S. beef cattle herd is the smallest it’s been since the 1950s.
CSU’s ongoing study – done in conjunction with Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University – was initiated about five years ago and is in its final year. About $1.3 million has gone toward CSU’s portion of the research.
Woerner said there are already 29 cuts of beef that – if served in 3-ounce portions, which is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended serving size – qualify as “lean,” according to USDA’s standards, and are already commonly produced by packers in the industry. All 29 of those cuts have less fat and a healthier profile than a 3-ounce piece of a skinless chicken thigh, according to data.
But more recently, the ongoing research efforts have led to discovering 14 new cuts that qualify as “lean,” six of which are categorized as “extra lean,” and all of which could soon become more mainstream in restaurants and grocery stores.
“We’re definitely finding more options for consumers,” Woerner said.
While red-meat consumption has been linked to heart disease, beef, when consumed in healthy portions, offers a wealth of nutritional value, Woerner added. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association ranked beef as the No. 1 source of protein, zinc and vitamin B-12.
Iron, too, is plentiful in beef, Woerner added, noting that research has shown many young women and elderly people are iron-deficient.
In addition to finding healthier cuts of beef to meet U.S. demands, Woerner said it’s also a focus of the research project to find ways for those leaner and smaller cuts to maintain a high level of taste.
“While we’re seeing consumers gravitating toward healthier food, most consumers are still looking for a satisfying eating experience, and it’s important that we find a way to meet those needs, as well,” Woerner said. “When you’re talking about a 3-ounce steak, it can be difficult to maintain the same level of taste, but those are the things we’re looking at.”
And – as is the case in all food research, Woerner said – food safety is a top priority.
Locally, grocery store and restaurant managers said they’ve noticed a slight consumer shift away from beef to leaner meats, like fish, poultry and bison. But while that national trend hasn’t caused significant changes locally, the beef industry’s ability – or inability, for that matter – to appeal to all domestic consumers has huge implications for Greeley and Weld County, where some of the largest cattle producers and feeders and beef packers operate and do hundreds of millions of dollars of business annually.
With domestic consumption having been down for some time, and cattle-feed prices high, some sectors of the industry are losing money on their beef operations, Woerner said.
Local beef producers have stressed the importance of again appealing to domestic consumers.
“The beef industry needs to align toward the same objectives, from the cow-calf operator all the way through to the retailer,” Margaret McDonald, a spokeswoman for JBS USA in Greeley, said. “And that objective is to produce a wider variety of products that meet consumer preferences.”
Woerner said CSU’s Animal Sciences Department has maintained open dialogue with many companies in the industry during its research, including JBS.
Beef exports have been on the rise recently – increasing by 36 percent during the past three years – which has been a source of optimism for the industry. However, as of now, those exports can’t make up for what’s been lost and what could be lost in U.S. beef consumption, Woerner said.
The beef products exported to other countries include liver, stomach contents and other items – “what Americans don’t want to eat,” Woerner said – and, in terms of dollars, only represent about 10-15 percent of the carcass’ value, while the rest goes toward U.S. consumers.
“While exports are important, it’s absolutely critical that the beef industry finds ways to connect with domestic consumers … if they want to stay in business,” Woerner said. “That’s what we’ve been asked to address, and that’s what we’re working on. We know how critical it is for the beef industry.”
Re-printed with permission from the Greeley Tribune