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Where's the Beef? Positive Shift Seen in Attitude About Red Meat

August 20, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The long-suffering beef industry is bullish about a recent survey that detected a positive shift in consumer attitudes toward red meat.

The turnaround is being attributed to a $30-million advertising campaign launched earlier this year by a coalition of livestock trade associations. The ads feature actors James Garner and Cybill Shepherd emphasizing the theme, "Beef. Real Food for Real People."

Data reflecting the change first appeared in a nationwide poll conducted in June by Walker Research Inc. of Phoenix. The recently released results were compared to those compiled from an identical survey at the January onset of the campaign.

The most encouraging news for the industry was that 13% of those polled reported increased beef consumption. In January, only 8% stated they were eating more of the red meat.

The industry also fared well on the corresponding question of whether respondents were cutting back on beef. In June, 20% of those questioned said they were eating less; down from the January level when 25% were reducing beef intake.

The survey also noted that 64% of those queried said that "beef fits into their life styles." Earlier in the year, the figure was 59%.

The poll further questioned respondents on whether they believed beef was an important part of a well-balanced diet. Fifty-six percent agreed with the statement in June, up from 51% who felt so inclined in January.

Results Are Heartening

Tom McDermott, a Beef Industry Council spokesman, said the survey's results are heartening and indicated that Americans' attitudes seem to be changing. However, he acknowledged that it will be some time before there's a complete turnaround in public perception.

"It's too soon to say that we're out of the woods," said McDermott, whose Chicago-based group and the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board co-sponsored the Garner-Shepherd ads.

The industry was prompted to make its major media investment as part of a large-scale effort to stem falling wholesale beef prices brought about by, among other things, America's changing dietary habits.

"We have experienced the textbook definition of loss in demand," McDermott said. Between 1979 and 1986, for instance, cattlemen received 30% less in terms of real dollars, or those adjusted for inflation, for their product.

"We're selling about the same amount of beef, but can't move it out without discounting," he said, adding that there have been slight price increases during the first several months of 1987.

Despite the industry's troubled financial picture, per capita beef consumption has remained relatively stable during most of the 1980s.

The most recent figures available, those for 1985, show that each American consumed 79.1 pounds of retail-weight beef. This level is slightly misleading, McDermott said, because it addresses an uncooked weight total and does not subtract for discarded fat or bones nor shrinkage due to cooking loss.

On the other hand, the per capita consumption in 1979 was 78 pounds. During the seven intervening years for which data is available, the rate never fell lower than the 76.5-pound level recorded in 1980.

Even so, the per capita statistics are not an appropriate gauge of the industry's health. In fact, McDermott said the consumption rates are the "worst indicator of consumer" preference. Prices, he said, provide a more accurate measure.

Actress Creates Beef--The $30-million dollar ad campaign has produced more than just increased consumer awareness of beef's attributes. Controversy arose when Cybill Shepherd was quoted in a magazine as stating she was cutting back on red meat.

The flap occurred not long after the television ads, featuring the star of ABC-TV's "Moonlighting" series, were first aired. Beef industry officials were embarrassed when the April edition of Family Circle magazine quoted Shepherd as saying that she was avoiding red meat as one of her new beauty secrets.

McDermott of the beef council said there is no rupture between the cattle industry and Shepherd, who purportedly received $1 million to pitch beef on TV. The actress claimed that she was misquoted in the story and then apologized to the industry.

The mishap apparently occurred, McDermott said, because Shepherd's dietary-beauty secrets were relayed secondhand to Family Circle from the actress' publicist.

Seasoning Revolution--Food, as much as contemporary life, has gotten decidely spicier since the late 1950s, according to a recent federal report which details the growth of spice use in the United States between 1959 and 1986.

Sales increases for the 12 most popular spices during this 27-year period were called "tremendous," by the FDA Consumer Magazine, which analyzed information by the Spice Trade Assn. The figures include industrial, food service and consumer usage.

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