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Don't let your meat purchase put you in the red

Operators and their customers who love meat are starting to fork over more money to put protein on the plate. The problem starts with the feed. Cattle are traditionally finished on grain, but farmers looking for larger profits are now growing corn for ethanol instead of animal feed. Cow/calf producers are currently bearing the brunt of higher feed prices, says Gregg Doud, chief economist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. But economist Ephraim Leibtag with the Economic Research Service of the USDA reports that wholesale beef prices rose...

Operators and their customers who love meat are starting to fork over more money to put protein on the plate. The problem starts with the feed. Cattle are traditionally finished on grain, but farmers looking for larger profits are now growing corn for ethanol instead of animal feed. Cow/calf producers are currently bearing the brunt of higher feed prices, says Gregg Doud, chief economist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. But economist Ephraim Leibtag with the Economic Research Service of the USDA reports that wholesale beef prices rose 1 percent in each of the last three months—not a huge uptick, but significant. “We’re now close to 5 percent higher year over year,” he says.

Corn prices shouldn’t affect other red meats quite as much. Although hogs are also grain-fed, they are slaughtered earlier—seven months compared to around 18 months for cattle. Currently, the pork supply is large enough that prices have remained stable, but that may change as grain grows scarcer. Veal and lamb also reach the market faster—four and a half to six months and six to eight months respectively. Veal are formula-fed a diet of whey and whey products, while lamb are raised primarily on forage (grass pasture).

It will take smart buying strategies and a bit of menu flexibility to make money off the center of the plate in the next few months. Think about locking in contracts with suppliers, subbing one red meat for another and cutting back on portion sizes before increased costs force you to raise menu prices.

Get a Little Wild

Rich Flocchini, principal in Sierra Meat Company in Reno, Nevada, specializes in sourcing domesticized game. “We’ve seen a large increase in demand for ‘unusual’ red meats,” says Flocchini, who has raised buffalo himself since the 1960s and imports venison and kangaroo from Down Under. Lately, chefs see venison’s mild flavor, tenderness and lean profile as an appealing meat alternative.

Todd Gray, the chef-owner of Equinox in Washington, D.C., purchases Cervena venison in vacuum packs from his purveyor. It comes trimmed and ready to go—“adding up to a good food cost,” he reports. Flocchini also believes in portion cutting as a moneysaving measure. “All our meat is portion cut with a laser knife. It’s much more precise and saves labor and waste” he says.

Gray adds his cooking advice: “Venison is very lean, so it’s important to keep it medium-rare. I slice the leg into medallions and saute them to fan out over a starch.” The saddle, which can be divided as an eight-rib rack or tenderloin, takes well to grilling.

Sourcing Beef

Prime beef is most vulnerable to rising prices—it’s in greatest demand but the supply is smaller. It also represents a greater investment; an animal has to stay on feed longer to reach prime grade than it does choice, notes Ann Rasor Wells of the North American Meat Processors Association. The supply of choice is more ample—good news for midscale restaurants where it’s a mainstay. But fine-dining operators who always bought prime might be surprised; the quality, tenderness and consistency of choice is better than it was five years ago, says the NCBA’s Gregg Doud.

To soften the effect of rising beef costs, Doud suggests two strategies. “Pay attention to seasonal price patterns. More cattle come to market in the summer, so prices are slightly lower,” he says. And work with suppliers on setting up more sophisticated risk management systems. “Contract to buy further out in the future; instead of two to six weeks in advance, try for six weeks to six months. Feedlot operators and processors are using the futures market to hedge, and restaurants should be doing the same.”

Canadian beef can be a smart buy as well. After the BSE scare, Canada has been proactive in instituting slaughtering and tracking methods to ensure a safe supply. Once again, Canadian beef is being imported to help meet demand—about 4 percent of beef consumed by Americans is from Canada.

The “Other” Red Meats

Veal, lamb and pork are not seen as often in the center of the plate—mainly because so much more beef is produced. Even so, the industry groups dedicated to these proteins are taking strides to change that.

Pork products are being developed for speed of service and more definitive flavor profiles, notes Paul Perfilio, national foodservice marketing manager for the National Pork Board. He cites two De Luigi breakfast sausage introductions—blueberry-maple and apple-cinnamon—as examples. “With the breakfast daypart exploding, products like these are much in demand,” he says.

Like the beef industry, pork folks are marketing fresh items from “less desirable” sections of the hog. “Pig wings,” “pork stix” and “hamm’rs” are fabricated from the hind shank of the animal into 8- to 10-ounce portions that resemble turkey drumsticks. When slow-roasted, they shrink to the perfect size for hand-held appetizers. And a pork leg—similar in look to a large steamship roast—is meeting with success on catering and buffet menus. “There’s also more interest in all-natural pork and a growing number of producers are getting into breed-specific pigs raised sustainably,” Perfilio adds. “Consumers really want to know where their food is coming from.”

The pork industry is closely watching the ethanol situation, too. Hog farmers may start planting corn instead of raising hogs because it’s more profitable, which can hurt the pork supply with a double wallop. Pork belly prices are higher this year because of the huge demand for bacon and this should continue through the summer. “These are interesting times for protein producers,” says Perfilio. “We’re not sure yet where it will shake out.”

Veal is making news through a new program that encourages use of underutilized cuts. Taking a page from the beef cattle industry, two universities conducted a veal optimization study to explore muscles in the chuck and shoulder for marketing potential. They found that the square cut chuck yielded a veal flat iron, petite tender, shoulder tender, shoulder filet and boneless rib.

Jim Eidman, executive VP of sales and marketing at Strauss Veal & Lamb in Wisconsin sees exciting opportunities in both casual and fine dining for these lower-cost cuts. “The Veal Committee [of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Board] has worked with chefs to develop recipes and restaurants are starting to feature the new cuts,” he says. The industry is also focusing on “the next generation” of veal—value-added products. Strauss has seen orders increase for veal seasoned with rubs and marinades, sausages with diverse flavor profiles and veal meatballs.

Although corn is not an issue in raising veal, producers face similar feed shortages. “We’re now competing with the energy drink companies for whey and whey products—the staple of the veal calf’s diet,” Eidman explains. “Historical highs for feed have been exceeded and we’re constantly looking for replacements.”

Lamb is benefiting from the “eat local” movement. “This trend has increased use of lamb in foodservice and changed the way we market it,” says Margaret Magruder, chair of the American Lamb Board and a third-generation sheep farmer in Oregon. “Restaurants like to identify and describe the source and customers want to get
a feel for who is sending lamb to their plate.” Since lamb is raised primarily (or exclusively) on grass and without hormones, it’s a good story to tell.

The industry is also realizing it has a whole lamb to market. Although chops and racks still reign, shanks, burgers, leg slices, shoulder for “barbecue” and other higher-margin cuts are catching up. A 2006 report from FoodBeat, a menu tracking company, notes that 81 percent of Trendspotter restaurants in their database feature lamb on the menu; items like Saddle of Oregon Lamb and Colorado Lamb Dip Sandwich are examples. Vacuum-packed, boxed cuts are widely available, making lamb more convenient for casual operations.

“Prices for lamb are pretty stable this year,” says Magruder. “Forage has recovered after the drought and we raise sheep year round, so there are no boom or bust times.” The challenge for American producers is lamb imported from Australia and New Zealand at lower prices because of the weak dollar. However, domestic lamb has the advantage of delivering larger-size chops and other cuts.

The humane touch 

How food is raised is as important to today’s consumers as where it comes from. Animal welfare is an especially hot button for the meat industry. In response to customer demand, chef/owner Todd Gray of Equinox in Washington, D.C., seeks out small production farms that practice certified humane treatment of animals. Restaurateur Wolfgang Puck has recently made headlines for the same sourcing strategy.

{mosimage}Every producer—large and small—agrees that the better care animals receive, the better quality the meat will be. Lately, the industry as a whole and each sector has been more proactive in instituting humane treatment guidelines.

•The American Meat Institute has been working with Dr. Temple Grandin, a leading animal welfare expert, since 1991. Grandin encouraged the development of an auditing program to monitor and measure practices in packing plants; the program was launched in 1997. This May, the AMI released the 2007 “Animal Handling Guidelines and Audit Guide” to update and further improve practices through the addition of more criteria.

•The Pork Industry Animal Care Coalition, made up of pork producers, packers, restaurants and retailers, initiated Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) in June. The program addresses 12 areas that affect animal care and well-being on the farm, including housing, air quality and caretaker training. Those who comply through training, assessment and audits can achieve PQA Plus certification.

•A number of veal packers are taking a leadership role in converting to the European style of raising calves in group pens instead of individual stalls, according to Dean Conklin, director of the Veal Committee of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The industry’s goal is to increase veal consumption in the United States by upgrading animal handling practices. Strauss Veal & Lamb in Wisconsin is also testing free-raised production.

•The American sheep industry has developed a quality assurance program to commit producers to use humane and environmentally sound practices, says Bo Donegan, executive director of the American Lamb Board. Lamb is traditionally pasture raised and the animals roam free—they’re never confined to stalls. Managing the land as a sustainable resource is a priority of the industry, Donegan adds. “Producers take care in shepherding their flocks
to protect water and avoid over grazing. The sheep contribute to environmental balance by controlling invasive weeds without the use of herbicides.”

•The cattle industry has a Beef Quality Assurance program in place as well as a Producer Code for Cattle Care. This year and next, the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System is conducting a beef study to assess and update animal welfare practices.

Product Cutting: Veal scaloppini or cutlets

Conducted by Jim Eidman
Executive VP of sales and marketing
Strauss Veal & Lamb
Franklin, Wisconsin

1. Determine the size of the slice that fits your end use. Top round yields the largest slice; clod the smallest. Some operators prefer placing four 2-ounce scaloppini on a plate for more coverage; others like the look of two larger pieces.

2. Consider other specs. Do you want the purveyor to pre-pound the slices to reduce shrinkage or pin the veal to make it more tender? How should the veal be packed? Boxed product usually comes with veal slices in individual cryovac packages. Weights range from 11⁄2 to 8 ounces per slice, with 4 ounces being the most common.

3. Open the packaging and inspect the color. Veal ranges from white to red in color; animals can have the same diet but stress and other factors will affect the color of the meat. For consistency, different colors are never blended in the same package.

4. Check the texture. Meat should be firm and slightly moist, never slimy.

5. Cook and taste the veal. The texture should be tender and moist; the flavor mild and not gamy. Make sure the taste of the veal meets your specs.

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