By Matthew Yglesias
Kim Severson had an interesting article in The New York Times back on Tuesday about a recent multimillion dollar research effort by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to identify “new” cuts of beef that can be marketed to the public for cooking purposes rather than just ground up as low-margin ground beef:
ON a stainless steel table in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association test kitchen, a meat scientist named Bridget Wasser began dissecting a piece of beef shoulder as big as a couch cushion. Her knife danced between long, thick muscles, then she flipped the whole thing open like book. After a tug and one final slice, she set before her visitor the Denver steak. The three-quarter-inch-thick cut is an inexpensive, distant cousin of the New York strip. And it didn’t exist until the nation’s 800,000 cattle ranchers began a radical search for cuts of meat that consumers would buy besides steaks and ground beef.
The goal here is to serve the interests of industrial agriculture, but I wonder if the ultimate impact of a successful venture wouldn’t be to mostly benefit niche market beef. Right now, after all, the big problem with humanely raised grass-fed beef is that by and large it’s insanely expensive. But if you found viable ways to use and market a larger portion of the cow, however, that would bring some more affordable options to the market. The problem is especially acute since the leaner grass-fed cow is not really a particularly appealing source of hamburger meat so the current “grind it up” fallback option for meat that falls outside the conventional cuts isn’t especially useful.
The other thing is that to actually make this work from a marketing perspective, you really need the meat to be sold at a retail level by people who customers trust and are able to explain to them what you do with the stuff. Most cuts of beef are only tasty if you prepare them correctly, and since these are “new” cuts people don’t know how to prepare them correctly. And nothing about the way my Safeway is set up is designed to inspire confidence that I can pick up an unfamiliar cut and get good instructions on what it’s good for. My local farmer’s market is a very different situation in that regard.