BAM! Where There Was One Steak, Now There are Two

I originally published this entry in the Summer 2009 Issue of Keystone Cattlemen, the publication of the Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association.

Beef retailers listened intently as Kari Underly of Range, Inc., Chicago, IL, demonstrated the fabrication of beef value cuts from the chuck and round at the recent Beef Boot Camp in Boston, MA.  They were intrigued and seemed to enjoy watching the seemingly easy-to-cut steaks and roasts being made in front of them.  Then Kari moved on to the top loin.  All was well as she removed the fatty tail portion of the strip.  So far, so good.  Then BAM!, she cut the top loin – all those wonderful K.C. (or N.Y.C.) strip steaks – right down the middle.  You could watch the longtime meat cutters shudder and hear them gasp as the sharp knife split the top loin half-in-two (lengthwise).  BAM: Beef Alternative Merchandising.

The alternative cutting methods that comprise BAM are the result of a 2008 project funded by The Beef Checkoff.  Beef has been fabricated the same general way for decades, and during that time, the cattle we produce have changed.  They are larger, leaner.  Ribeye and strip steaks have gotten bigger, and subsequently, so have portion sizes of these traditionally high-value beef cuts.  Portioning a large ribeye to 12 or 16 oz. can result in a very thin steak, which can be frustrating to cook Medium-rare (this is my experience).  That single steak also represents 4 to 5 servings of beef (1 serving of beef = 3 oz.).

When the loin was cut in half, twice as many steaks were made.  The 2008 consumer studies indicated that beef buyers were accepting of these smaller, filet-like steaks.  Consumers recognized these attractive filets would cost more per pound; however, when marketed as 2-, 3-, or 4-steak packages, consumers indicated that they would be willing to buy it.  Presently, alternative, value-adding fabrication methods have been developed for the rib, short loin, and sirloin.

This couldn’t have come at a better time for beef producers.  According to Cattle-Fax, beef middle meat (rib and loin) prices are at a 7-year low.  Contributing factors to this decline in value is the decline in eating out, and an increase in cooking at home (retail food purchases are up 60%).  Financially-strapped consumers have shifted from ribeye and strip steaks to less expensive chuck and round cuts, and not just ground chuck and ground round, but recently developed value steaks from the chuck and round are significant contributors.  In fact, end meat (chuck and round) values are up, essentially making up for the lost value in the middle meats.

Summer, beef’s best season, is upon us.  Consumers are getting ready to fire up their barbecue grills.  Low middle meat values ultimately translate to reduced profit opportunity for beef producers.  Increasingly, beef retailers are willingly using their knives in creative ways to boost the value of fresh beef.  This market alternative will take time to take off, but in time, this may serve as an illustration of our industry’s ability to reinvent itself.  And BAM! that’s Beef Alternative Merchandizing.