Anyone who has ever tried to catch a chicken knows how difficult it can be. The wiry birds can produce moves that Barry Sanders would envy.

Chasing a live bird is not unlike chasing chicken in the meat case, which pork has been doing for the past several years. In the effort, pork has gained some and lost some. These days, at the occasional poultry meeting you can even hear a cautionary reference to the Other White Meat and its marketing progress.

But while poultry and pork keep an eye on each other, there is a bigger four-legged critter rumbling back into race. More cattlemen are getting the consumer, quality and convenience messages. Today, beef is not to be ignored.

Granted, for many years beef sales have been stagnant or declining. But last year, U.S consumers bought 800 million more pounds of beef at prices 7 cents higher than in 1998.

Is that the beginning of a trend or simply a fluke?

Previously I would have viewed beef’s 3 percent demand increase as part of the U.S. economic groundswell. Today, I believe there’s more to the picture.

Beef’s attitude has changed.
Today, more of the traditionally independent cattlemen are joining forces to create value-based alliances. According to Drovers’ magazine, there are already more than 30 such alliances established. Within the next five years, industry leaders expect another 60 to form.

“The industry will become coordinated with herd sizes becoming larger, fewer breeds will have more impact, production systems will be more specialized and breeding programs will fit a targeted market,” says Harlan Ritchie, with Michigan State University.

Others agree. Wayne Purcell, agricultural economist at Virginia Tech University, sees a two-tiered industry. “The bottom tier will produce beef with no attention to genetic goals or herd management. The top tier will be producers with targeted genetics in alliances. They are the ones that will produce for a consumer market that will pay well for the right product.”

Sound familiar? That’s why it’s not a fluke. The chicken, and now the turkey, folks have mastered the consumer philosophy. Pork is working on it, and beef is joining the race.

Nutrition and convenience are two of the attributes that beef is touting these days. Slogans like “Pot roast, no longer slow roast” emphasize easy-to-make and ready-to-go meals. These heat-’n-eat options taste good and make life easier for today’s busy consumers. What’s more, these products found new options for the underutilized chuck and round cuts. Pork faces the same challenge with the fresh ham and shoulder.

Certified Angus Beef is probably the single most successful branded meat story of any species. It has found a home in the retail meat case, on restaurant menus and in the export market. Certified Hereford Beef and others are now mimicking CAB.

Branded beef products have about 12 percent of the beef market. Ritchie expects that to grow to 25 percent, possibly 50 percent, in the near future. “These products will bring back some of the consumers that beef has lost to other meats,” says Purcell.

Along with some 30 new products developed in the past three years, the beef industry has launched a new way to sell its products in supermarkets. Tested in 23 of the nation’s top grocery chains, “Beef Made Easy” organizes beef products in the meat case by preparation methods vs. the type of cut. Why? Because that’s the way consumers think – and shop. Today’s consumers don’t know or care where a cut originates.

My point here is not to imply that pork has been sitting on the sidelines. My point is to illustrate that while pork attempts to catch chicken, beef is making strides as well.

There are only so many consumer dollars to go around, and beef will continue to grab a few more. Beef industry alliances make pork’s movement in that direction all the more critical. Individually, you will have to determine which part of pork’s two-tiered industry you want to belong to – the commodity tier or the premium tier.

You know how hard it is to catch a chicken. Now visualize trying to rope a charging steer.