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Branded Beef Booming
(Tuesday, 17 June 2003 - Denver Post)

USA: A blitz of TV, radio and newspaper ads brags about the tenderness of new Rancher's Reserve Angus beef, the new brand affixed to sirloins, T-bones and other cuts of meat sold at Safeway.

Safeway’s Rancher’s Reserve Angus beef is among the specialized brands and labels that grocery stores now display in the meat case.

Safeway joins other grocers in a mounting effort to turn a longtime commodity product into a specialized array of meal choices - distinguished by sophisticated brand names and labels.

"I'm going through about half again as much beef as I was selling before," said Lonnie Weimer, meat manager at the Safeway at East Sixth Avenue and Downing Street in Denver.

King Soopers led the charge two years ago when it introduced its Cattleman's Collection private label. Albertsons recently introduced AngusPride, a national brand. Boulder-based Wild Oats Markets is readying a new branded line of natural Angus steaks.

In Denver, competition between Safeway and King Soopers is growing fierce, said Mark Thomas, vice president for marketing at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"They're going head-to-head, nose-to-nose, and quite frankly it's great to see because at the end of the day, the consumer is going to decide the success of any brand," he said.

The branding is more than putting lipstick on a cow.

Rancher's and Cattleman's are both USDA "select" and the next higher grade, "choice," lines. AngusPride is choice. That's an upgrade from select and standard cuts.

But prices have changed little if at all, say company officials. In fact, chances are good that customers will even pay less, as competition heats up during the summer grilling season.

The beef branding also is a response to the increasing demand for beef, Thomas said.

Nationally, grocery and restaurant beef sales hit an all-time record of $60 billion in the last 12 months, spurred by population growth and shoppers' willingness to pay more for higher-grade beef, Thomas said.

It hasn't hurt that beef, portrayed as a dietary villain in the 1980s, is the star of protein-heavy diets like the Atkins program.

"I have seen more positive change from a consumer point of view in the past 48 months than I've seen in the last 30 years," Thomas said. "There is a revolution going on in the beef industry."

Consumers are also more particular. While some want the higher grades, which contain more fat, others request leaner cuts or natural beef - raised without synthetic hormones or antibiotics.

The new branded labels don't offer much information, however. They do signify a "promise" that a steak will be tender and fresh, say grocers and beef suppliers.

"If (grocers) deliver on that promise, then time and time again those brands are going to be recognized and sought after and command a higher price," Thomas said.

Branding meat is also a big money-making opportunity. Shoppers choose a grocery chiefly by location and how well they like the perishables - such as meat and produce.

"If you get them in for meat, you get them in for other things," said R.D. Kuhns, a store manager at the Sixth Avenue Safeway.

The labels are also needed guideposts for the meat case, one of the last places in a grocery store to get brand names, said Sylvia Tawse, a marketing and food industry consultant with the Fresh Ideas Group in Boulder.

Shoppers see many meat choices but typically have little to go on besides weight and cut when deciding what meat to buy, said Tawse, who works with Coleman Natural Meats.

"People stand over the meat case, and they're almost paralyzed," she said. "Brand gives them a quick answer about the breed and other attributes."

Coleman and Wild Oats are planning to co-brand a line of natural Angus beef later this year.

They haven't come up with a name yet, but Angus will likely be part of it.

Historically, Angus cattle produced superior steaks; thus, the first well-known beef brand was Certified Angus Beef.

"All other Angus programs really developed on the coattails of Certified Angus Beef," Thomas said.

Today, there's disagreement about whether some other breeds match Angus for flavor.

But if a product does say Angus, that's what it is, said Mark Klein, spokesman for Wichita-based meat supplier Excel Corp.

Retailers give differing reasons for branding beef.

"The goal through having a branded beef was to go through a scientific process that would minimize this inconsistence in tenderness," said King Soopers spokesman Trail Daugherty.

King's parent company, Kroger Co., developed a list of specifications that include cattle breed, age and what they eat before deciding what goes into Cattleman's Collection.

Safeway officials say they want to stay competitive.

However, while each may be selling better grades of beef, the differences among the stores is negligible.

In Colorado, most conventional grocers get their meat from the Excel plant in Fort Morgan, which is a national supplier of prime, choice and select meats.

Safeway and King Soopers sell under a private label, which all the advertisements assure is "exclusive" to that retailer. And Albertsons sells AngusPride, an Excel national brand.

Since Rancher's Reserve arrived last month, customer response has been almost entirely positive, said Safeway's Weimer.

"The Rancher's Reserve is aged 14 days before we get it," twice as long as before, Weimer said. "Aging helps to break down the muscle fibers, which makes it a tender steak."

Meg Ryan of Denver said she's noticed improvement, even in the chuck roasts she buys.

"It's definitely a more tender cut," she said of Rancher's Reserve.

Others aren't so sure.

A.J. Hess of Denver said she likes Safeway's meat better than other grocers', but said she found little difference in the Rancher's Reserve steak she bought a few weeks ago.

"It didn't have the flavor I expected for a so-called special cut," she said.


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