LEAD: High school health teacher Nina Hammerstein grew up eating pot roasts and steaks. But
when the Culver City resident buys groceries for herself and her 6-year-old son, convenience
and nutrition reign, and that usually means beef doesn't make the grade. Her grocery cart one
recent afternoon held a ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken flavored with garlic and rosemary and
some lean ground turkey for making tacos.
"I thought about a tri-tip roast," said Hammerstein, 44, "but I wondered what I'd do with the leftovers."
Where's the beef? Not enough on consumers' plates to suit the meat industry.
Seeking to recapture skeptics like Hammerstein, the nation's $153-billion beef industry is belatedly taking a cue from the poultry industry and starting to devise seasoned, precooked products that can be heated in minutes in a microwave oven. They are the latest entrants in a fast-growing grocery segment called "home meal replacements" or "meal solutions"-a category so new that many products have yet to hit stores.
These offerings are designed to lure back to grocery stores the legions of dual-career couples, single mothers and other busy consumers who, to avoid the muss and fuss of cooking, have resorted to taking home comfort food from Boston Market, Koo Koo Roo or the neighborhood pizza parlor.
When it comes to dinner fare, harried food shoppers are demanding lightning-fast preparation and cleanup along with taste, value and wholesomeness. Beef, even straightforward cuts such as rib-eye steak or filet mignon, often seems like too much trouble.
There's also the problem of keeping beef's attributes-flavor and consistency-which often suffer during reheating, said Kenneth W. Gerdau, manager of a new retail line of food products that Irvine-based Claim Jumper restaurants is developing.
"There are just so many applications-wings, tenders, half breasts, breasts-that you can do with chicken and turkey," Gerdau said. "And it holds up really well when frozen. But beef is harder to do."
The new selections range from London broil to barbecued short ribs to beef stew with vegetables. Most of them can be microwaved or prepared in conventional ovens or on the stove top. And for the kitchen-averse, they at least provide the illusion of cooking, complete with savory smells.
Some come with side dishes such as pasta, creamed spinach or cinnamon-spiced apples. If this sounds like something your mother used to serve from an aluminum tray in front of a television set with rabbit-ear antennae, rest assured: These are not your mother's TV dinners.
Claim Jumper's chefs are experimenting with different beef dishes to find selections that can make the transition. They've already found a few entrees that seem to do the trick. Frozen beef ribs packaged by Claim Jumper, for example, actually taste better than reheated leftovers, Gerdau said.
For the beleaguered beef industry, the products mark an overdue attempt to reverse a 20-year trend of eroding market share and bruising periods of oversupply.
Since the mid-1970s, tens of millions of diners' dollars have migrated to chicken and turkey, which long ago eclipsed beef in marketing prowess by creating new products, including "microwaveables," that grabbed the fancy of today's consumers. Even pork-"the other white meat"-has poured on the advertising dollars with enviable success. And lean novelties such as ostrich, emu and buffalo meat are also finding prominent spots in the meat case.
Food shoppers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for anything that smacks of an easy-to-assemble "dinner kit"-with all the fixings and directions. And the poultry faction, in particular, has obliged.
Beef people, meanwhile, have stuck with their fractious, Wild West ways, to their detriment. The industry-from cattle ranchers to feedlots to packers and processors-is an adversarial bunch that still produces and sells beef as a commodity, with very little brand-name recognition on which to build a franchise.
By contrast, poultry has a number of well-known labels such as Zacky Farms, Foster Farms, Tyson and Perdue-operations that control everything from genetics to packaging to marketing.
Many observers view precooked entrees with brand names as beef's last shot at greatness and a chance to help overcome consumers' fears of clogged arteries and E. coli poisoning.
"These products hold the key to our future," said Bruce Berven, executive director of the California Beef Council, a trade group in Foster City.
Here's some of what's in store:
Claim Jumper's frozen entree line, which includes beef ribs and a shredded beef product used in sandwiches, soon will add a country-fried steak that will be fully breaded and cooked.
Harris Ranch, a Central Valley institution along Interstate 5 known for its high-quality branded beef, will soon ship to retailers a beef stew complete with vegetables in a vinyl microwaveable tray. That product joins two other microwaveables: a tri-tip roast, on the market since 1992, and a pot roast.
Emmpak Foods Inc., a Milwaukee beef processor, has launched a line called Tonight's Choice. Buy an entree such as rib-eye steak or London broil and select two side dishes, all of them fully cooked and ready to heat.
Flint Hills Foods Inc., a producer in Alma, Kan., has a fully cooked pot roast that serves three and can be prepared in seven minutes or less. The company hopes soon to distribute that and other products on the West Coast.
And Ralphs plans to install departments near its service delis to house meal solutions, following the lead of Safeway, the new owner of Vons. Other food chains and warehouse stores are also stocking precooked or ready-to-cook meals in meat cases.
Cattlemen say the advent of precooked beef entrees marks the industry's concerted if tardy effort to heed what shoppers are saying.
"We weren't listening, but about five years ago we became very aware of the consumer," said John Lacey, a Paso Robles, Calif., rancher who just served a term as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., a prominent trade group based in Denver. "We've also talked to doctors, nutritionists, food editors. We're optimistic about increasing consumption."
The industry didn't always have to struggle to hang on to customers. From the 1950s through the mid-1970s, red meat was on a roll. Consumers gravitated toward it as a status symbol. The proliferation of McDonald's, Burger King and other fast-food outlets fueled demand. Per-capita annual consumption soared, reaching a peak in 1976 of 94.5 pounds.
Then nutritionists became alarmed that Americans were eating an unhealthful amount of red meat. People abandoned beef in droves and began choosing more fish and poultry. Beef prices, meanwhile, skyrocketed as much as 80%, whereas poultry and pork prices remained stable or rose a fraction of that amount.
For two decades, beef has been losing market share at the rate of a percentage point each year-a cumulative loss of customers equal to, by one estimate, the populations of California, Idaho and Washington. And as poultry producers have focused on "value-added" products that turn humble birds into cash cows, grocers have allotted them more shelf space.
Only recently did per-capita beef consumption begin to rise, after bottoming out in 1993. The turnaround is due in part to an increase in supply, but consumers have also responded to improvements such as leaner cuts. Beef consumption in 1997, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., is expected to be 62.5 pounds per person, compared with 49.9 pounds for chicken and 46.5 pounds for pork.
Despite beef's higher prices, its share of the consumer's purse has also dwindled dramatically. In 1980, 61.5% of what shoppers spent on meat and poultry went for beef; in 1995, that figure had tumbled to 46.5%.
Demographic trends haven't helped. Empty-nesters and working single parents or dual-career couples in the baby boom generation have largely forsaken the kitchen for restaurant dining and takeout. And for Generation Xers, now in their late 20s and early 30s, cooking from scratch will increasingly be a lost art.
A recent study by consultants McKinsey & Co. predicts that by 2005, Gen-X adults and their children will rarely eat a meal prepared at home. Those who do venture into a grocery store will demand prepared selections that can go on the table in as little as 10 minutes, half the time that consumers allow these days.
It is that sort of sweeping shift that beef people are finally beginning to address. But getting the products right takes time and money, and the industry is years behind poultry in making appealing, convenient fare.
Mark Thomas, vice president of new marketing initiatives for the cattlemen's group, was chagrined the other day when his working wife brought home a whole chicken under the label of Frank Perdue, the beak-nosed poultry purveyor.
"I fear we'll see it in my house every 15 days," Thomas said. The precooked bird, sold in a domed container, can be "nuked" in 15 minutes and sells for $6.75.
He also singled out Chicken by George, a microwaveable Hormel product. The labels, featuring former Miss America Phyllis George, note that the boneless, skinless chicken breast fillets consist in part-as much as 25%, in fact-of a solution designed to enhance flavor and juiciness.
Given that, Thomas said, shoppers are paying more than $9 a pound-for chicken. "Why can't we do the same with a mini beef roast?" he wonders.
Well, for several reasons.
For one, Thomas said, because of beef's chemical makeup, an unpleasant "warmed-over flavor" can be more noticeable in red meat than in poultry.
Packaging has also proven to be a knotty problem. The only glitch keeping Harris Ranch from shipping its beef stew-unusual because it combines beef with vegetables in the same package-is the wait for a manufacturer to modify the vinyl container, which will double as a serving tray. The original package, a polyvinyl bag that could withstand high temperatures, was too awkward and might have caused burns on cooks' hands.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle is the memory of Mom's cooking. Consumers along California's Central Coast gave a thumbs down recently to a Harris Ranch precooked meatloaf.
"From the start, I was a little concerned," said John Isadore, senior vice president and general manager of Harris Ranch Beef Co. "There are a lot of variations in expectations. And ground products give the appearance of being greasy, fatty."
Flint Hills Foods decided in December to dive into the retail market after three years of preparing precooked products for restaurants and other institutional customers. After spending $3m to expand, it's shipping its first product, an old-style beef pot roast, and plans soon to release a brisket in barbecue sauce and a prime rib.
Todd Hansen, vice president of marketing, said the fully cooked and seasoned pot roast, which serves three or four, will sell for $6 to $7, not much more than the $5 or so it would cost if sold fresh. The company hopes to distribute soon in California.
The industry still has far to go to address consumers' myriad other concerns about beef, which range from pathogens to environmental consequences. Some meal-solution offerings are convenient but fall short on taste.
A few of Emmpak's side dishes, produced by another manufacturer, taste salty and overly processed and are loaded with additives to extend shelf life. The meats likewise list preservatives and flavor enhancers.
"Ingredients are a very big issue with Southern California consumers," acknowledged R.A. "Bob" Sebastian, director of meat and seafood for Chilay Corp. in Anaheim, which is distributing the Emmpak products.
Indeed, many shoppers interviewed in local stores wrinkled their noses at the idea of precooked beef.
"It would be rubbery," opined one woman, echoing the sentiment of many.
Beyond concerns about taste, however, the beef industry must figure out how to revive the beef-eating habit for the millions of diners who cut back for lifestyle reasons. Even though today's leaner, smaller cuts are much more healthful, fears over cholesterol and fat linger for much of the population.
A Bigger Cut
Beef consumption is creeping up from its 1993 low - but the industry is seeking a bigger cut of the meat market by following the lead of poultry and pork producers in offering precooked, microwaveable products that are more convenient to prepare.