This month of May, the agriculture community celebrates National Beef Month by promoting one of America’s favorite red meats. The story of the U.S. beef industry is truly dynamic and fascinating. From the early colonial homestead pastures to the cattle drives that defined our Great Plains, beef grew up eerily close some of the most defining parts of our history. There’s a reason hamburgers and steaks are associated with the proverbial backyard Americana barbecue!
Within the last 100 years especially, our changing society, technology and marketplace has continued to help shape how our proteins are produced. But perhaps now more than ever, the focus is also on how the end products are marketed. We’ve mastered the arts of mass production, feed efficiency, timely transportation and growth rates exceptionally. Now we’re faced with a new task – in a world of morphing demographics and ideologies how do we sell it?
In the 1970s one particular brand emerged that helped springboard a whole new era of protein marketing. In fact, you may be somewhat familiar with it – Certified Angus Beef®.
Angus breeders got together and had a simple idea. They wanted to not only promote their cattle, but also satisfy consumers with a product that was consistent. (Remember, before this time the pursuit of a good steak wasn’t as easy as it is now. Much of it was a hit or miss.) These cattlemen scoped out the trifecta of beef quality – juiciness, tenderness and flavor. Subsequently they developed parameters in which only qualified animals and carcasses would be eligible for the brand. You see for yourself just what those are on the brand’s official website right here.
It was a pretty nifty idea and it certainly accomplished what it set out to do. In 2018 the brand reported its 12th consecutive year of record sales. You see the label everywhere from mid to high end restaurants and boasted in the grocery store aisles. Consumers, while they might not realize what all the branding really means, instantly associate the black steer label with quality.
On our end of the market, it certainly added value to one breed in particular. While Angus has been a success on American soil for some time, due to their good carcass traits and polled bonus, it was this brand that suddenly made black hides a trait worth an extra buck. Check out this article for some additional details on the confusion that ensued.
Now, we live in a beef era where virtually every breed has suddenly found their black hided heritage. You can buy black Maines, black Simmentals and black Limousins. I’ve even heard tell of black Charloais. With the incentive to go black, a lot of breeders were willing to let their gene pools be slightly touched for a hefty premium. Understandable, but purists will argue is it best for the breeds? After all, you don’t eat the hide nor hair. At the same time, CAB was created with the intent to promote one specific breed. The other consequences were unintentional, but pretty substantial nonetheless.
Some breeds have tried to do similar things, such as Certified Hereford Beef, which also has its niche but isn’t nearly as widespread as Angus who got to the idea first.
Likewise, CAB has not necessarily taught consumers the “what” of quality beef. It just gives them quality, and naturally they associate it with the label. They have no idea what contributes to flavor, tenderness and juiciness nor the breed differences. But they do trust the consistency that Angus has provided them for years, and they’ve proven they’re willing to pay more for it.
The same can really be said about any branded beef product. Third-party audits and verifications have made it possible for anyone with enough animals to participate in whatever program that best matches their operation, markets and profitability. Consumers have repeatedly shown they’re willing to reach into their pockets and pay more for “grass fed” “naturally raised” “hormone free” “source verified” “organic” and a host of other things.
This certainly helps cattlemen, the economics of production and consumer satisfaction. But is there ever a concern that some of it may come around? Consumers learn to trust labeled based on either product experience, or pre-conceived perception about said product.
If I’m told this one is right, than should I be worried the others are doing something wrong?
For this reason, I get rubbed somewhat of the wrong way when I see things for “hormone-free chicken” (hormones are illegal for use in all poultry in the U.S.) or “non-GMO strawberries.” On one hand I feel we should use wise marketing to our advantage as much as possible. If people are willing to pay more, there’s some demands worth meeting. However there is a fine line between meeting demand, and intentional deception or misconception. A very fine line.
Branded products such as CAB will continue to be an important part of the beef industry. I believe producers of all scales and backgrounds need to find there place in the market and capitalize on it as much as possible.