Food – Every Place, Any Place - Ever Changing Food Distribution

By Steve Wald, Executive Director, Beef Innovations and John Lundeen, Senior Executive Director, Consumer Marketing 

To bring this story alive, let’s start with two personal anecdotes.

First Steve’s story: In 1998, I remember the talk of Wal-Mart opening their first Supercenter with plans to have over 200 Supercenters throughout the United States by 1995. To think that Wal-Mart Supercenters could go from zero to 200 stores in such a short period of time, especially considering the need for such an intense focus and learning curve on the extremely important perishables category, surprised food experts. Consumers at that point were skeptical that the Wal-Mart that they were familiar with could provide their needs like supermarkets had done for years, but traditional retailers were concerned. Today, there are nearly 3,000 Wal-Mart Supercenters1 and they are one of the top sellers of beef in the world.

Now John’s story: Some years back I asked a younger single friend if she thought the peaches had been “good this year.” She responded that she had “missed the season,” and really hadn’t been in a grocery store while they were merchandising peaches. I noted that the peach season “lasted 3-4 months,” and she noted, “that would be about right, I really haven’t shopped for groceries much in 3-4 months.” Further discussion made me realize that she planned her life around activities, and then would find food that happened to be close by.

The point of these two stories is to spotlight why food distribution will continuously evolve. New players will enter the game. And consumers, at certain points in their lives, will adopt new strategies for getting the food they want.

Case Study #1 – Braum’s Dairy Stores. Brahm’s is headquartered in Oklahoma and started as an ice cream and dairy store. Braum’s Dairy Stores has since transformed itself into a multi-purpose store, still a destination for ice cream and milk, but now also a place to sit down for lunch and dinner, or to buy groceries, frozen items, bakery products, fresh produce and fresh meats.

Author’s Crystal Ball. We have all seen convenience stores and gas stations that sell hot items, with “roller grill” sausages and wrapped items being a common sight. In the gas station industry, the items in the store now drive the bottom line, so we should expect to see an ever-expanding repertoire of food sold.

Case Study #2 – Walgreen’s. Buy your sushi at Walgreen’s? Find a fresh meat case in their stores? Sounds improbable, but on Tuesday, January 12th, 2012, a flagship Walgreen’s in Chicago began to offer deli items, gourmet wine, a juice bar and fresh baked goods; in addition to sushi, and yes, fresh meat. Oh yes, there is also a hair salon on the second floor, but this is a story about food.2

Author’s Crystal Ball. Consider the fact that Walgreen’s has over 7,800 drugstores, and you can quickly get a sense for the potential this organization has to become a force in the world of food. And what player could do a better job of bringing together the worlds of food and nutrition?

Case Study #3 – Food Trucks – One other phenomenon that is currently taking the culinary world by storm is food trucks. In the past, these would mainly be seen as construction sites and their various nicknames didn’t really encourage the appetite. Today, however, there are thousands of these foods trucks serving casual to gourmet breakfasts, lunches, and dinners to people throughout the United States. Virtually every day part and every cuisine are represented by these enterprising operators and chefs. Beef certainly plays a role in these operations.

Author’s Crystal Ball. Traffic can be very unpredictable in these locations, so quick prep solutions will be invaluable. Space, of course, is at a premium. In light of this, one developmental chef recently told us that a small microwaveable roast would be an ideal raw material, allowing the food truck operator to quickly respond profitably to higher traffic than expected.

Case Study #4 – Sit-Down Eating in Grocery Stores – Let’s have lunch. Whole Foods? Costco? Barnes & Noble? Consider the fact that total retail foodservice is estimated by Technomics at over $35 billion, which represents 6.6% of total food and non-alcoholic beverage sales, and you can conclude, that’s a lot of lunch.

Author’s Crystal Ball. Every retail foodservice outlet wants to be known for offering high quality food. In fact, great food then becomes part of the pull to bring customers into the store for their primary goods. We expect the quality and diversity of food offerings to increase as more and more players seek that signature set of food offerings.

These four case studies are highly visible, but in no way cover all of the changes in food distribution occurring today. Starbucks is highly visible in the breakfast food category, and now wants to extend their food offerings into other day parts. Takeout food now exceeds the volume of food eaten at the table in restaurants. Food delivery services are up and running in many major metro markets. The casual restaurant segment continues to grow and morph. It all spells change.

Change Forces Change

As food distribution continues to evolve, so must beef. And as an industry, we must feed the innovation pipeline. Here is a summary of new thinking, new processes and evolving technologies that will help us better serve current and new food distribution players.

  • New packaging technology. Extended shelf life packaging will be important in some of these new venues, with slower turns than the 2-3 days that grocery stores realize.
  • Package size variety. Many of these new venues have small footprints. And stores in many markets are increasingly selling to smaller households. In fact, 62% of households in America today have 1-2 people.3 Small retail and housing footprints drive the need for smaller offerings.
  • Quick Prep. Time windows for food preparation are shrinking, both in-home and in the foodservice world. That is why sous vide and microwaveable solutions will continue to find new customers.
  • Product Mix. Having the right “Product” mix is a key. For example, a typical consumer going to the drugstore may be rushed, or carrying a minimal grocery shopping list. You might not want to merchandise a 7-bone pot roast that takes more extensive meal planning. More likely, you would want to merchandise quick, staple items such as, ground beef, sirloin steak, and beef strips. All of these can be quick and very versatile.

To truly meet the needs of customers and consumers, a solutions-based approach will likely be the best. The Beef Innovations Group, funded by The Beef Checkoff, is working on a program called Convenient Fresh Beef (CFB). This program provides quick and simple solutions for beef meals in less than 30 minutes. CFB uses a combination of technology, chef tricks, and seasoning packets to achieve fantastic results. One example is a microwaveable Sirloin tri-tip that can be ready in as little as 15 minutes. Microwave and beef are typically two words that are not used in the same sentence, however, this is one of those products where the old adage of “try it, you’ll like it” comes into play. Special self-venting microwave packaging cooks the beef “to order” and it actually browns as it cooks. This is one example among several where innovation from both technical and food science approaches are blended to provide products for today. Applications for these items may be found in-home or elsewhere in the food distribution landscape.


Like Wal-Mart becoming one of the largest sellers of beef in the world today, things that sound inconceivable today, might be reality tomorrow. Beef must position itself to be part of this expected change. Innovation in product design, raw materials, and technology will be some of the keys to make sure beef is part of this ever-changing dynamic of where consumers buy and will buy their food.

1 – Wal-Mart Corporation, 2012
2 – Drugstore News, January 12, 2012
3 – U.S. Census Bureau

New Beef Tenderness Survey Results

By Bridget Wasser, Senior Director, Meat Science & Technology

Tenderness is a critical component of beef’s palatability or taste and it helps drive consumer enjoyment and demand for beef. With funding from The Beef Checkoff, the industry has been tracking beef tenderness for 20 years through the National Beef Tenderness Survey. The original 1990 Survey revealed tenderness problems with cuts from the top sirloin, round and chuck, and identified a need for longer and more consistent beef aging. The 1999 Survey revealed a 20% increase in tenderness as compared to 1990 with improvements attributed to fewer no-roll steaks (steaks without a grade designation) sampled, an increased availability of steaks grading Choice and Prime, and adoption of more gradual chilling procedures and longer aging periods. Despite noticeable improvements, tenderness issues still existed in 1999. Results of the 2005/2006 Survey showed an 18% overall increase in tenderness as compared to 1999. This increase resulted in overall beef tenderness levels that were at an all-time high.

In 2010/2011, The Beef Checkoff commissioned the fourth National Beef Tenderness Survey to quantify the status of tenderness as compared to previous Surveys. Researchers at Texas A&M University led the effort with collaborative support from Texas Tech University, California Polytechnic State University, the University of Florida, the University of Missouri, North Dakota State University, Oklahoma State University and Penn State University. Twelve U.S. cities were selected for sampling and each city was sampled once between March 2010 and February 2011. In each city, two to three retail chains, representing at least one-third of the total-area-market share, were sampled for product in four stores per chain. Therefore, a total of eight to 12 supermarket stores per metropolitan area were sampled. In addition, if a membership-based retail store existed in a city and was not included in the one-third market share, one store of the membership-based chain representing the largest market share was sampled.

From the retail stores surveyed, researchers selected Top Blade Steak; Ribeye Steak, lip on, boneless; Ribeye Steak, lip on, bone-in; Top Loin Steak, boneless; Top Loin Steak, bone-in; T-Bone Steak; Porterhouse Steak; Top Sirloin Steak, boneless, cap off; Top Round Steak; and Bottom Round Steak. In a random assignment, steaks were shipped to one of the collaborating universities to be evaluated by a consumer panel or tested by Warner-Bratzler shear force.

Researchers also sampled one foodservice distribution facility in each of five cities. Foodservice cuts for each available quality grade were sampled including the Ribeye Roll Steak; Top Loin Steak, boneless; and Top Sirloin Butt Steak, center cut, boneless. Foodservice cuts were shipped to the University of Missouri for random assignment to either consumer sensory panel or Warner-Bratzler shear force evaluation. New as compared to the 2005/2006 Survey, steaks from the round were assigned to one of two cooking methods – moist-heat cookery in a convection oven or dry-heat cookery on a grated, non-stick electric grill. Foodservice steaks were cooked on a gas grill and all cooking methods were identical across research sites.

Significant 2010/2011 Survey findings:

  • Approximately 64% of retail cuts were labeled with a store brand.
  • Retail beef was aged an average of 20.5 days compared to 22.6 days in 2005/2006. The aging period for retail cuts ranged from 1 to 358 days as opposed to a range of 3 to 83 days in 2005/2006.
  • The mean percentage of retail subprimals aged (measure of post-fabrication times) less than 14 days (considered minimum recommended aging time) was 35.7%.
  • For foodservice cuts, the average aging time remained relatively constant at 28.1 days compared to 30.1 in 2005/2006. The aging period for foodservice cuts ranged from 9 to 67 days.
  • Retail Top Blade Steaks had the lowest (most tender) Warner-Bratzler shear force values. Retail Bottom and Top Round Steaks had the highest (least tender) Warner-Bratzler shear force values.
  • All foodservice cuts had low Warner-Bratzler shear force values with the lowest being steaks from the Top Loin and Ribeye.
  • Comparing retail cuts, consumer sensory panelists rated the Top Blade Steak, the boneless Ribeye Steak, the boneless Top Loin Steak, and the bone-in Top Loin Steak the highest for overall like. Consumers rated the Top Blade Steak and the boneless Ribeye Steak the highest for tenderness.
  • In retail, the Top Sirloin Steak, Top Round Steak, and Bottom Round Steak were rated the lowest for overall like, tenderness like, and tenderness level.
  • Among foodservice cuts, the Top Loin Steak was rated highest by consumers across all attributes including overall like, tenderness like, tenderness level, flavor like, flavor level, juiciness like and juiciness level.

Most steaks evaluated in the 2010/2011 National Beef Tenderness Survey were considered tender or very tender. Moreover, the Warner-Bratzler shear force values in this Survey are similar to those of the 2005/2006 Survey, which were at an all-time high. However, aging was found to be less consistent in the current survey than it was five years ago, particularly at retail. Researchers speculate that increased featuring activity at retail may have resulted in short in-store supply of certain cuts at certain times of the year and consequently, short aging. Moreover the least tender cuts continue to be those from the round, suggesting the need for improved aging practices for round cuts and increased consumer education focused on proper preparation and cooking techniques to enhance the eating experience of leaner, less tender round cuts.

Benchmarking tenderness values every five years keeps us focused on continuous improvement.
Information from this and previous National Beef Tenderness Surveys will continue to be important information for the industry to use to gauge current tenderness performance and areas for potential improvement. In addition, this information is important in setting priorities for additional research that needs to be conducted to further improve beef quality.

A full Executive Summary of the 2010/2011 National Beef Tenderness Survey can be found here.

New Product Review

There are a lot of beef products available at retail – fresh beef in the meat case and a variety of shelf-stable, refrigerated and frozen products that highlight beef or use beef as an ingredient. This month we hit the frozen case at two retailers in south Denver, King Sooper’s and Safeway, and found these recent entries:

Hot Pockets® Snackers Fiesta Nacho Bites
These small triangles of pastry stuffed with seasoned beef, Mexican style cheese sauce & jalapenos are crispy and flavorful, and can be baked or microwaved. These bites pack a bit of heat on their own, so a nice “cool” ranch dressing (or sour cream) for dipping is advisable.

Healthy Choice® Beef and Broccoli
This entrée was easy to prepare in the microwave and quite tasty when the beef, rice, broccoli and sauce are tossed together rather than plated like the box (and this photo) suggest. The beef was tender and the sauce was mild and not too sweet. The serving size is more than adequate for one person.

Lean Cuisine® Culinary Collection Ranchero Braised Beef
This entrée was easy to make in the microwave and had good flavor, but the serving size was very small. The beef was tender and the sauce was good, but there could have been some heat in the potatoes as they were “chipotle” mashed sweet potatoes. Check out the The Beef Checkoff Recipe Mexican Beef Stew over Chipotle Sweet Potato Mashers to make a similar dish at home.

Hot Pockets® Side Shots - Hamburger and cheese sauce in a bun
These snacks had a hint of dill and tasted a lot like the components of a cheeseburger. The ground beef was plentiful and the flavor was good. The cheese sauce was atomic hot out of the microwave but cooled fairly quickly when the two-bun package was broken apart. This would be a great afterschool snack for kids.

On Trend

The World of Food Apps

An increased dependence on hand-held technology has made mobile applications or ‘mobile apps’ increasingly popular with consumers. Beef for Dinner, funded by The Beef Checkoff, is an app that makes it simple for consumers to not only pick out the cut they want to use from an Interactive Meat Case, but find additional beef cut options, cooking information and recipes.  Other mobile apps for food-lovers and/or culinary professionals include Evernote® Food, which allows you to take pictures, write notes and even geo-tag your location for sharing meals with others; Chefs Feed® which answers the question “where do the best chefs eat” and gives users lists of restaurants to frequent in a handful of U.S. cities; and Epicurious, which is an award-wining app that puts thousands of recipes in the palms of users hands. In addition, most if not all of the food magazines in circulation have mobile apps, which are accessible by going to their websites. Mobile apps are not always free but the nominal fee for most have made the barrier to access minimal.


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