Nevil Speer says consumers have always craved high-quality beef, and the thought of going without it during a pandemic may have intensified that craving.
Speer, who serves as director of industry relations for Where Food Comes From, Inc., after a long tenure as a professor at Western Kentucky University, says the percentage of choice cattle in the U.S. essentially plateaued four or five years ago.
“With that, we are seeing more and more cattle grade prime,” he says. “We would normally see most of that go toward food service, but with COVID-19, a lot of it got diverted to retail. Consumers were willing to pay more then, and they have stayed committed.
“There is going to be more and more competition for those cuts. COVID has really been a wake-up call for the beef industry.”
Speer says the life changes brought by the pandemic continue to ripple through consumer buying preferences. He says the retail sector has made a huge commitment to keeping meat and other products fresh, something he believes will foster continued loyalty to those items.
“This is very exciting from the beef industry side,” Speer says.
Even with more consumers turning to prime beef, the demand for choice beef remains strong, he says. Demand for select cuts, Speer says, has waned.
“We just don’t produce much select beef anymore,” he says.
The percentage of cattle grading choice began increasing substantially in 2010, says Lee Schulz, extension livestock marketing economist with Iowa State University. He says prior to that, choice percentages were generally in the 50-55% range. Since then, that percentage has grown to 70%.
“That’s really in step with the decline in select cattle,” Schulz says, adding the percentage of prime beef has increased slightly but is still in the 10% range.
He says higher feed costs could result in a slight decrease in the percentage of cattle grading prime. Weights also grew in 2020 as production was hampered by the pandemic.
Schulz says the likelihood of seeing more cattle in the select category is slim, although he says there remains a market for those cuts, especially when used in ground beef.
“I think the packing and processing industry is still trying to figure out the ideal mix of these grades,” he says. “There remains a strong demand for beef that you can grind, especially over the past year or so.”
Speer says as Americans continue to wade through the pandemic, they will continue to demand high-quality meat and other items.
“COVID reinforced food quality,” he says. “We like good food, and we are willing to pay for it.”