A few days ago a small news item caught my attention because a meat market manager was complaining that changes in beef and pork labeling would cause his customers confusion.
My first thought was to recall how many times I've heard John Lundeen, NCBA's beef demand guru, talk about consumer ignorance concerning beef cuts and cooking. Changing the name couldn't really matter, I thought.
Nonetheless I went searching for what change might have occurred and whether it would cause the industry grief.
With hindsight I'd say the changes are pretty positive.
I interviewed Trevor Amen, director of market intelligence for NCBA, who told me this was a multi-year project with quite a bit of consumer-specific research behind it.
Amen agrees that consumers have poor knowledge of meat cuts, especially beef and pork, and says they typically know only three or four cuts. However the standardized naming system created in the 1970s hasn't helped matters any.
Like the new system, the old one was developed by the Industry-Wide Cooperative Meat Identification Standards Committee (ICMISC), which includes representatives of the meat production industries as well as people from the meat marketing industries, both wholesale and retail.
ICMISC decided several years ago perhaps it was time to update its Uniform Retail Meat Identification Standards and the project was born.
After two years of consumer research including consumer focus groups, one-on-one interviews and even eye-tracking research to determine how consumers read meat labels, the new labeling system was created and rolled out in April.
Amen says the differences are actually pretty subtle but add some clarity and eliminate some redundancies.
In years past the labeling system listed the names in this order:
4. Bone or boneless
5. Thick or thin
The new labeling system only has three basic components:
1. Common name
2. Combined description by species, bone or boneless and the primal or subprimal name.
3. Cooking instructions
The popular Flat Iron steak, before and after, gives a good example of how much simpler the new naming standards can be.
Before it most likely would have been labeled "Beef shoulder top blade steak boneless flat iron." Then would come cooking instructions if there were there at all.
Now you would simply see three lines on the label:
Flat Iron Steak
Beef Top Blade, Boneless
Grill for best results.
If you'd like to look at the new names beside the old you can go to the Meat Track website and click on the button labeled "beef common name list."
Perhaps the most hopeful thing to come from the labeling change is a consumer pledge to try more cuts if a naming system made meat shopping easier. Amen said 63% of consumers in the research project said they would try new cuts with this new naming system. Then 67% said they would find and go to a store which used this system.