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BEEF, Back in favor : Leaner, lighter beef is back on the American table--with the blessing of U.S. government, the beef industry and health and consumer agencies alike.

January 21, 1988|ROSE DOSTI | Times Staff Writer

No food on the American table, with the possible exception of eggs, has been more beefed about than beef. Red meat has unquestionably been given a bum steer.

Well, the tide is turning.

Consumer demand for meat lower in fat is actually putting a leaner, lighter beef back on the American table with the blessing of U.S. government, the beef industry, and health and consumer agencies alike.

For years, government agencies and heart and cancer groups have called on Americans to reduce dietary fat to lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity. The call was for low-fat protein sources, such as fish, legumes, low-fat cheese, skinless chicken and turkey, and lean meat trimmed of visible fat.

For years, consumer groups have had beef on their hit list, attributing to beef more ills than you would wish on your worst enemy.

The consumer has pooh-poohed red meat in favor of chicken and fish in recent years, while devouring 10 million beefy burgers daily in schizophrenic confusion. Indeed, according to 1986 USDA Disappearance Charts (amount of beef sold in the retail market), per capita retail consumption of beef dropped from a 94.4 pounds in 1976 to 79.8 pounds in 1986.

Now, government, health, public advocacy and meat industries join together as willing, if strange bedfellows. Last November, at the suggestion of a consumer advocacy group, Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, and with the blessing of the meat industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a name change for lean meat, changing "Good" to "Select." Thus was launched a new era for beef as a government-and-consumer-approved food that Americans can now enjoy without guilt.

The good, old Good (now Select) grade of meat is lower in fat and calories, less expensive and takes less time to cook than the more popular grades, Choice and Prime, which are known for being higher in fat and, consequently, more tender.

The government's move to upgrade the name in order to attract buyers to the lowly meat grade will spotlight an alternative protein source for those looking for low-fat meats. Economically, the move also targeted the large segment of the population that has moved away from red meat because of concerns about diet and health--namely, the younger, more affluent urban consumer.

"Beef consumption dropped off noticeably in this part of the population, and there is a lot of room to bring this group up to standard consumption levels that fits in with their nutritional goals," said Craig Mitchell, director of consumer information at the Meat Board, an industry-sponsored group in Chicago.

The nutrition establishment applauded the government name change, calling the introduction of Select grade meat in the market a step in the right direction.

"On the nutritional side, it's definitely a positive move because it helps the consumer choose meat that is leaner without thinking twice," said Rita Storey, a representative of the American Dietetic Assn.

Public Voice was so delighted with the USDA move that they wrote letters to supermarket companies urging them to offer consumers Select beef because it is leaner than Choice and "because of the scientific consensus that fat in the American diet should be reduced."

Other organizations supporting the name change included the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the American Public Health Assn., the Consumer Federation of America, the National Cattlemen's Assn., the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Meat Institute.

Since the November changeover, supermarket chains have hardly rushed to offer the new grade beef to the consumer. Most supermarkets canvassed in Los Angeles, for instance, prefer to stick to their own less costly (10 cents to 40 cents cheaper per pound) USDA-inspected but not USDA-graded house brands, which are drawn from beef that falls 80% within the Choice grade guidelines. Some markets also may carry lesser Commercial and Utility grades.

Safeway, for instance, has no immediate plans to deviate from its current offerings of Choice and "no-roll" (ungraded) beef, the ungraded brand that Safeway has called "Select" independent of the USDA for the past two years; Safeway Select should not to be confused with the USDA grade of the same name.

Vons Companies Inc. will continue to offer USDA graded Choice. "Offering Select grade meat would be taking a step backward," said Stuart Rosenthal, a Vons executive vice president. Only Ralph's Grocery Company, of Compton, which calls its house brand "Premium," announced that it will introduce the USDA-graded Select in its stores in early 1988.

Lucky Stores, which does not advertise meat grades, continues to call its house-brand meat "Five Star." According to Judy Decker, spokesperson for Lucky Stores Inc., the chain has not yet determined whether or not it will advertise the Select grade. Alpha Beta's brand is called Butcher's Pride. Alpha Beta is currently considering offering the Select grade meat when available.

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