Commentary: A new name game

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Years ago, in an attempt at humor (which wasn’t appreciated by most of its intended audience of retail meat merchandisers), I published a tongue-in-cheek list of “The Top Ten Complaints of Retail Meat Managers.”

Along with taking a swipe at “Nosy shoppers who insist on checking that thermometer buried in the back of the case,” and “Brokers who take offense just because you suggested they could lose a couple cases of sirloins off the back of their truck once in awhile,” one of the items was, “Having to keep a straight face when the cashier calls over the PA for a ‘Price check on Boston Butts.’ ”

Today, not only would meat managers complain that line wasn’t funny, they could point out that it isn’t accurate, either.

That’s because the meat industry is “refreshing” its 40-year-old naming system for cuts of beef, pork, lamb and veal, thanks to an agreement worked out between officials of the National Pork Board, Beef Checkoff Program and USDA to rename more than 350 cuts of pork and beef.

That represents more than merely a cosmetic makeover, because from their inception in the 1970s, the Uniform Retail Meat Identification Standards were designed to convenience retailers and butchers, not consumers. Given what’s now known about the purchasing behavior of modern shoppers, the operative question is this: What the heck took so long?

Better now than never, I suppose.

Ultimately, this will be a positive change, albeit one long overdue. For example: The punch line that’s no longer appropriate will change from “Boston Butt” to “Boston Roast” (described as a bone-in pork shoulder), which is not only more consumer-friendly but more anatomically accurate, as well.

Confusion was killing the case

As even college marketing majors know, consumer confusion ain’t good for sales. When we don’t understand product nomenclature, it’s easier to simply skip the entire category and move on to other alternatives.

“Consumers didn’t really understand the names being used, and still don't,” Patrick Fleming, the Pork Board’s director of retail marketing, told Bloomberg News. “The names confused consumers to the point where they’d go, ‘You know, the information doesn’t help me know how to use it, so I’m going to stop using it.’ ”

(Isn’t that what I just said?)

Along with a switch to names which with people can actually connect—and that are much simpler: All cuts of sirloin steak will now be labeled “Sirloin Steak”—the changeover debuts another long-awaited concept: Universal terms across species. For example, a bone-in loin cut will be called a “T-bone,” whether it’s pork or beef.

Which could require a little getting used to on the part of consumers. As USA Today explained it, the ubiquitous pork chop, for instance, will get new names “reminiscent of the cuts used to describe steaks. What used to be Top Loin Pork Chops will now be New York Chops. A Pork Loin Rib Chop will now be a Ribeye Chop.”

The new pork names—ideally—are also meant to alter how fresh pork is cooked. Since USDA now permits pork to be cooked only to 145 degrees F, a pork chop could (and should) be grilled just like a medium to medium-rare steak

By themselves, of course, these name changes won’t spur any dramatic sales growth. However, the makeover does intersect with two trends critical to fresh meat merchandising.

First of all, even as a growing number of consumers get more involved in where and how food products are grown and produced, our collective skill set regarding foods that require in-home preparation is falling off the proverbial cliff.

Even as people become more concerned about the origins and purity of their foods, we know less and less about how to prepare them for consumption.

Second, the use of our limited leisure time is increasingly likely to involve preparation of “specialty foods” ill-suited for a quick weeknight dinner after a long workday, but perfect for a weekend afternoon spent entertaining friends and neighbors.

What’s typically at the top of the menus for such occasions? Meat and poultry—which is why a simplified, more informative naming system for cuts of meat likely to be the centerpiece of special at-home meals is so valuable.

Personally, I’m not going to miss explaining to non-industry friends the backstory of the Boston Butt.

And I doubt that too many meat department managers will, either.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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