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Beef Checkoff is Changing Perceptions of Beef

Beef Checkoff is Changing Perceptions of Beef

Consumer information is a big part of the checkoff as it celebrates its 25th year.

“The American Heart Association Puts its Heart Mark on Three Cuts of Beef.” “Lean Beef is Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet.” “Lose More Weight by Eating More Steak.” Seeing front-page headlines like these in consumer publications is hard-earned news for cattle folks in 2011, of course. But if someone told you 30 years ago that these headlines would appear regularly in regional, national and international consumer publications – and it wasn’t April Fool’s Day – you probably would have first laughed in their faces, then taken away their lager … or looked around for Allen Funt and his “Candid Camera” crew.

That’s because food headlines of the 1970s and 1980s were more akin to beef bashing than to any kind of beef support or promotion. Headlines like “Meatless, guiltless” on a 1974 New York Times article were more the order of the day. And then there was the seemingly endless trail of reports and warnings with which consumers were inundated in the wake of the 1977 Senate Select Committee on Food and Nutrition’s Dietary Guidelines for America, which recommended “Eat less red meat.” In fact, that very report was part of the very impetus for a national checkoff program.

You needn’t dig very deep to be reminded that consumer perceptions – whether scientifically founded or not – are equivalent to reality when it comes to the bottom line for beef producers, and that reality 30 years ago was bleak. At that time, beef was declared a villain in the growing battle against heart disease, and the troubled beef industry watched its market shrink, as consumers turned toward chicken and non-meat choices as the low-fat healthier options of the day.

Well, it would be an egregious understatement to say that ‘times have changed.’ Consumers understand so much more today about things like cholesterol, fat, calories and, maybe most important, the positive role that naturally nutrient dense beef plays in a healthy diet. They’re armed with the facts about beef, and they’re taking those facts all the way to the supermarket meat cases and to restaurants across the globe, in the form of beef purchases.

In fact, while dietary guidelines actually were first instituted in 1941, you need only compare the vague dietary guidelines, or USDA’s equivalent “Nutrition and Your Health” documentation of 1980, to the Food Pyramids of 1992 through 2010, to the “MyPlate” guidelines of today to see how much things have changed. In 1980, the seven dietary guidelines included “avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol” and sent a message to consumers to limit red-meat intake and, in what might seem shocking to us today, also stated that there was no known advantage to consuming excess amounts of any nutrients, as “the roles of specific nutrients have not been defined.”

There was no pyramid or similar graphic with the guidelines of 1980, and there was no specific mention of the power of protein. Graphics of food groups were added in 1988, and the “food pyramid” became a reality in 1992 and was amended a number of times. Today’s new “MyPlate” dietary guidelines offer simple but science-based information for consumers trying to figure out what to eat to maintain a healthy lifestyle: In the simplest terms, MyPlate guidelines note that one half of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables – and the other have with whole grains and lean protein. And beef is not lumped into a group of fats or sweets under the category of “foods to reduce.”

Yes, beef has earned at important seat at the table and on the plate, for sure, and the beef industry has a great story to tell today. But change doesn’t just happen. So what was the catalyst to change the course of the beef industry and help bring on such welcomed headlines in 2011?

OK, so because this is a series about the Beef Checkoff Program, you can probably guess what we’re going to say next. But even if it’s a bit predictable in this case, the truth is also a blessing here: Back in the 70s and early 80s, there were no individual producers or organizations with the resources to make a big enough difference for beef’s reputation – or to change beef’s profile to meet evolving consumer demands – on their own. Producers realized they needed to come together if they were to stay in the fight, and the Beef Checkoff Program eventually was born to help the cattle industry help itself.

During the last three weeks, this 25th anniversary series has addressed specific checkoff achievements in the areas of beef promotion, and beef research, which serves as the very base of the beef industry’s healing process. It identified ways to improve beef quality, safety, and its nutritional profile, and gathered evidence to win back trust and return beef to the center of consumer plates.

Consumer Information

It comes down to empowering consumers with knowledge.

In Part 3 of this series, we addressed the achievements of 25 years of checkoff-funded research in bringing beef back up to par with consumer expectations. But that’s just part of the battle. It’s of little value to have these scientific, sometimes esoteric studies in hand if we don’t have a way to get the resulting news about beef to consumers worldwide, in ways that they can grasp easily. That’s one of the main reasons producers invest beef checkoff dollars in CONSUMER INFORMATION programs.

A definition of the broad “consumer information” reference in this context is probably in order first. As defined in the Beef Promotion and Research Act that enables the national Beef Checkoff Program, consumer information is “nutritional data and other information that will assist consumers and other persons in making evaluations and decisions regarding the purchasing, preparing, and use of beef and beef products.”

In the simplest terms, “consumer information” means food and nutrition communications, particularly about beef nutrition and other taste and associated qualities. As is clear in mainstream media on a daily basis, anti-meat factions are strong today. The difference is that the beef industry is armed with facts to keep or return discussions to science rather than emotion.

The national Beef Checkoff Program allowed the industry to increase placement of positive beef news. In its first 25 years, the checkoff has delivered billions of consumer impressions from positive beef messages through recipes, messages, spokespeople – including health professionals and other consumer influencers – media placements, and tools/materials such as the popular 50-page Confident Cooking with Beef booklet and the Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner website, which serve as 24-hour-a-day resources to consumers looking for reliable beef information. In addition, programs like the National Beef Ambassador Program and the National Beef Cook-Off have spread the good word about beef and the beef industry far and wide.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific far-reaching achievements of checkoff-funded consumer information programs during the last 25 years:

  • 29 Lean Cuts – Even at the start of the millennium, fewer than 10 beef cuts met government guidelines for “lean.” As the Beef Checkoff Program funded and incorporated nutrition and product enhancement research, helped cattlemen improve the nutrition quality of their animals, and educated the educators, the beef industry is proud today to boast 29 cuts of beef that qualify as lean available at retail – and more in the hopper. That’s been the base of a solid food and nutrition communications program – 29 Ways to Love Lean Beef – that the checkoff has undertaken in recent years, helping give health-conscious consumers the “permission” they were seeking to keep eating the beef they love.

That list of lean options includes cuts like tenderloin, T-bone, 95 percent lean ground beef, flank steak, tri-tip roast, and 24 other tasty cuts. Beyond lean, though, beef packs a powerful punch of nutrients, and that’s a story that the checkoff has shared far and wide. Of course, while ‘healthy’ is important, taste and tenderness are critical factors for consumers, too. So when steaks like the tenderloin and sirloin make the list of lean cuts, it’s a helpful reminder to consumers that today’s beef industry is providing a well-rounded protein that can fit their needs for ‘good’ and ‘good for you’ all in one package! 

  • Healthy Beef Cookbook – In a partnership probably inconceivable 25 years ago, the American Dietetic Association and the Beef Checkoff Program combined their expertise to create “The Healthy Beef Cookbook” in 2006. Still a great seller today, this compilation of more than 130 delicious recipes includes specific nutrition information with each recipe, as well as cooking techniques to create consistently tender, moist, flavorful beef dishes every time. And the checkoff leverages the recipes in this cookbook through is extensive food communications and live outreach efforts to consumers, health professionals, media, and the like, in some way virtually every day.
  • Masters of Beef Advocacy – OK, so it might not get you a job as CEO of Microsoft, but the checkoff does offer an MBA program that’s free to participants and could help improve the outlook for the industry you’re in today. The Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program has graduated nearly 2,400 “students” since its launch in March 2009, and is touted as one of the simplest yet most innovative ways for beef producers and other industry participants to mobilize around the true story about raising and eating beef. This builds on research indicating that when consumers understand and trust the individuals who are growing their food, they are much more likely to trust the industry and the food itself. And today’s beef has reason to be trusted. 

The checkoff’s MBA program is a free, self-directed online training tool designed to equip producers and industry allies with information they need to be everyday advocates for the beef industry. Participants complete the program prepared to serve as everyday beef advocates by getting out and delivering consistent beef messages one-on-one to consumers where they live. This may be as simple as talking to friends, family and neighbors, or going out to broader audiences, such as schools, businesses and civic groups, or gearing up on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to tell the beef story. If you haven’t started your MBA studies yet, enroll today

  • I Heart Beef – With increased visibility every day, the “I Heart Beef” campaign and logo you read about and see in newspapers, magazines, T-shirts, aprons, 4-H materials, bumper stickers, and the like, is a consumer information campaign born from a checkoff effort to motivate consumers to act on their love for beef. The program was specifically designed to help strengthen interest in beef middle meats, cuts that have a proven return on investment for beef producers, by reminding consumers of their passion for great steaks like the T-bone and tenderloin. The campaign includes numerous media outreach components, online and electronic communications, as well as information and a recipe contest geared toward registered dietitians, encouraging them to share their love for lean beef. As an off-shoot of the national efforts, the campaign is then tailored by Qualified State Beef Councils for outreach in their states and regions.

We’ve always known that consumers love beef, but now they’re shouting it from the rooftops and keeping the flame alive – “We Heart Beef! We Heart Beef!”

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