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Ranchers trying to keep steak on the dinner table

DENVER (AP)--Changing demographics, new values and a tight economy with rising layoffs are changing American's taste for beef, a researcher told attendees at the International Livestock Congress-USA on Jan. 13.

Health and nutrition are becoming more important to consumers, convenience is driving how families buy food, and people have higher expectations for taste, consistency and food safety, said John Lundeen, executive director of market research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

And then there's the economy.

Perceptions that people have less money to spend are affecting how willing consumers are to splurge on steak dinners.

"Whatever they perceive is how they shop," Lundeen said. "We need to keep people excited about steaks on the plate for dinner in the recession."

Though beef has kept its place on restaurant menus, diners are eating fewer ribeyes, tenderloins and New York strips, Lundeen said, and the amount of all cuts being served is down, except for ground beef. Even ground beef prices have risen, though, as producers coped with rising energy, feed and fertilizer costs.

A survey of consumers in September showed 61 percent said they are changing their food purchases because of higher food prices, he said. Of those, almost half said they were eating less beef, either by cutting it out altogether or by trading down to hamburgers from steaks, for example.

One key for keeping beef at the dinner table may be offering more frozen and ready-to-eat options, as busy households scrap fresh-cooked suppers for quick meals, in many cases prepared and sold at supermarkets.

"Are we a convenient product that you can make a steak on a Tuesday night?" Lundeen said.

Charlie Moore, vice president of Denver-based Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, said it's time to get more creative in developing products that meet customers' needs. This week Maverick Ranch is launching seasoned ground beef, so customers can buy taco, fajita and chili-flavored beef ready to go.

Meanwhile consumers are growing increasingly more concerned about sustainability and what goes into their food, showing there is demand for higher-priced organic and natural meat, Lundeen said.

However in British markets, organic beef is selling at prices close to those for regular beef, said Monty Brown, a processing-retail consultant in Europe for the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

While tight budgets are making it harder for people to buy organic now, surveys suggest long-term demand for it will remain, Lundeen said.

"People afford what they want," said Lowell B. Catlett, dean for the College of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico University, said earlier Jan. 13.

About 180 people from the U.S. and nine countries including Russia attended the Livestock Congress, organizers said.

The audience also included a dozen women and two men from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Paraguay and the U.S. who won student travel fellowships to attend. Many of the students spoke about agriculture's role in supporting a strong economy and feeding the world.

During a closing session Jan. 13, Tom Field of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association was asked why young people should bother getting into the animal agriculture business.

"It is a life worth living," Field said. "At the end of the day, you will have done something that mattered."

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