If anyone thinks the demand for ground beef or hamburger is only lukewarm or is declining, one look at the amount of ground beef sold in the United States, Canada and other countries should put that notion to rest quickly. Ground beef makes up the largest market share of beef consumption in the U.S. More than 9 billion lbs. of ground beef is sold annually in the U.S. alone. Almost all households in the U.S. use the product in a variety of dishes, including hamburgers, meatballs, salads and other fare. Most Americans buy the product at least two times a week, and ground beef accounts for more than half of all beef sales, as well as almost a quarter of all the meat sold in North America.

What’s driving ground beef and hamburger production and sales even harder and faster in 2010 include relatively new ways cattle are being fed, the large number of new products, with variations, being formulated from ground beef and innovations in the way ground beef and hamburger are designed.

A good illustration of new ground beef production ideas can be found at Cardinal Meats Specialists Ltd., a family-owned company based in Mississauga, Ontario. It was founded in 1966, yet the Cator family has been in the meat business for more than 80 years. At that time, Jack Cator was buying steers from local farmers, butchering in his own barn and selling the meat from farm to farm.

Jack’s son, Ralph, started Cardinal 43 years ago, which is now under the leadership of his son, Brent. What started as running butcher shops in Toronto and Bowmanville, eventually led to cooking innovative and high-quality meats, as well as top-level hamburgers in Mississauga.

“We’ve been a full-line meat purveyor for many years, and one of our major products has been burgers,” Brent Cator says. “We’ve always been an innovator when it comes to all our meat products, and that includes ground beef and burgers.”

Cardinal provides innovative premium products Cator claims are unmatched by commodity beef processors. With annual sales of $75 million, Cardinal serves the Canadian market, split 50/50 between foodservice and retail. Cator says the Canadian market for ground beef and burgers differs from the U.S. market, in that price is not generally the only consideration.

“Performance characteristics of the final hamburger, or ground-beef product, are very important in the marketplace up here,” he says. “Three factors are critical in the final product we make – the speed of cooking, the mouthfeel and the taste. Unique ingredients and blends create products meeting individual customers’ custom product requirements, as well as appeal to the Canadian palate. The desire for a pure beef patty is disappearing as both restaurateurs and consumers realize how much more flavor can be enjoyed with the right ingredients added.”

The U.S. is just starting to use spices and flavor enhancement to differentiate retail products compared to their Canadian counterparts. Ingredients are often more expensive than the beef in these premium blends. “We developed our Roadhouse brand of ground-beef products more than 20 years ago when it was twice the price of other ground-beef products and sales took off. The perceived value of a premium burger was immediate, and Roadhouse has been a top seller ever since,” says Cator.

Cardinal has taken a leading position in North America in forming technology. “We were the first to use the “Tender Form” technology for burger production in North America. The technology, developed by Formax, was created to enhance the cook time and ‘bite’ for hamburgers. It’s very important up here for us to create different kinds of products with different kinds of results,” he says.

Cator says Cardinal recently added European technology to form natural textures, creating a less-processed ground-beef product.

He notes there are endless ways to innovate groundbeef products, such as using “inclusions.” “Inclusions can be chunks of cheese, onions, peppers or stuffing, such as chili sauce, etc. The new technologies allow us to do a lot of this on an automated basis,” he says.

Cardinal was one of the first companies to introduce Angus burgers. It also manufactures ground beef made with prime rib, sirloin, halal inputs, three cheese, sauce, added chicken, turkey – you name it. Cator says his company is also preparing for the future. “Natural Texture Forming of ground beef is really the next step for us,” he says. “This is a ‘butcher-style’ product. We know consumers are looking for texture as the next significant domain in ground beef. There are many different enhancements, like reduced cook time, flavors and shape of the product itself coming with our new technologies.”

Cator notes his company produces 150 different burger items, both for foodservice and for retail. Cardinal may produce six to 10 of these on any given day. “We’ve chosen to be a custom-solution provider,” Cator says.

Vaulting to success

Sixty-year-old Devault Foods, in Devault, Pa., near Philadelphia, was started as a one-room butcher shop by Tom DiFillippo. Still family owned and operated, it has grown into one of the largest processors of portion-controlled meat in the U.S. The founder’s son, Tom Fillippo Jr., now president and CEO, says the company moved into the portion-controlled and ground-beef side of the meat industry in 1963. “Our first customer was the 113th Burger King in the United States, in King of Prussia, suburban Philadelphia. The company expanded its business to other fast-food chains, including Wendy’s, but exited the fast-food business 13 years ago. We left on very good terms, we just wanted to concentrate on developing our own products,” says Fillippo.

The sale of these products contribute to the company’s $75 million in annual sales. It also manufactures cooked meatballs and Philadelphia cheese steaks for companies that include Tony Luke’s in South Philadelphia. Ground products are at the company’s core. “Ground beef is a very big part of our business,” according to Fillippo. “We make formulations of cooked meatballs, including one from my Mom’s recipe. We also do a lot of custom products. Our research and development people make formulas, based on what the customer, the restaurant wants. We’ll make fresh and frozen ground-beef patties. Angus is one. Adding cheese is another. We also use a lot of typical ground-beef blends. I’d say we focus on ground beef, meatballs and Philly steaks in many sizes and formulations,” Fillippo says.

The company also co-packs for other makers in the industry, as well as makes hamburgers and meatballs from other meats, including poultry.

Fillippo explains Angus has become very big in the ground-beef world. “Years ago, people thought of ground beef as a commodity item, something cheap. But that’s not true anymore. People love hamburgers so much, and restaurants realized folks would be willing to pay-up for a higher-quality product.”

Now hamburgers are sold in white tablecloth restaurants, as well as multi-restaurant chains. And Devault Foods produces a wide variety of burger products, including “home-style” burgers – 100 percent pure ground beef, looking and tasting homemade, juicy and uniquely shaped and portioned; tubed ground beef and ground beef with vegetable protein for institutional customers when cost is an issue.

The company also makes sliders. “These are little burgers served on little rolls that have become very popular,” Fillippo says. As consumers search for less-costly meals, smaller items like sliders have become more in demand. “Of course, there still is the demand for the large ground beef and hamburger sandwiches, as well,” Fillippo points out. There are also “minute-menu patties,” all-beef patties manufactured for the price-conscious operator. For his restaurant customers he promotes Mrs. DiFillippo’s versatile, fully cooked meatballs. “These are popular in all foodservice segments, for sandwiches, soups or in any pasta dish.”

Back at the ranch

Veteran CBS News journalist Bill Kurtis, who spent 30 years of his career with the broadcast network, is the founder and chairman of Tallgrass Beef Co., based in Sedan, Kansas, an industry leader in the production of grassfed, grass finished beef in the U.S. The company today is comprised of a network of family farmers and ranchers across the United States producing beef according to a strict set of protocols.

Kurtis says grass-fed ground beef cooks 30 percent quicker than ground beef coming from grain-fed cattle, to the same degree of doneness. “This is due to the favorable fatty-acid profile. Because grass-fed beef has more total unsaturated fatty acids than grain-fed beef, the fats have a lower melting point, and will reach the same degree of doneness in onethird less time,” he says.

Grass-fed ground beef has a uniquely robust flavor bringing back the memory of what a real hamburger is supposed to taste like, Kurtis says. He says burgers and ground beef from grass-fed cattle are rich in taste and texture, due to the unique nature of the beef and significant differences in the amount of unsaturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids. “Because of this 30 to 40 percent quicker cooking time, I suggest people cooking ground beef from grass-fed animals use a meat thermometer to ensure the ground beef is not being overcooked,” he says.

Because of the more robust flavoring the ground beef coming from grass-fed beef features, Kurtis thinks hamburgers made from Tallgrass Beef animals do not need to be fortified with spices or other ingredients. However, Kurtis recommends mixing the robust-tasting ground beef from his grass-fed cattle with sweet onions, salt and pepper. Another recipe he recommends is called “green chili burgers,” consisting of grass-fed ground beef, garlic, black pepper, ground chili, Monterey Jack or a Mexican blend of cheeses, mild green chili peppers, sweet onion, tomato, lettuce and chunky salsa.

He says ground beef and hamburger made from grass-fed cattle is excellent because the meat itself is different. Meat from grass-fed cattle is the best natural beef, he believes.

Kurtis also believes a diet of grass for cattle leads to safer ground beef. “Our company uses a system allowing us to trace every pound of beef back to the processing plant, to the farm where the animal was born and raised, to the individual animal and to the specific date the animal was processed,” he says. Tallgrass only uses product from animals raised on ranches and farms that are part of the Tallgrass network for its ground beef, making it easier to trace the animals.

Dr. Allen Williams is the company’s director of operations in Sedan. He worked for commodity grain lots, ranchers and processors before joining Tallgrass Prairie Producers Corp., the predecessor of Tallgrass Beef. “There was a clearly emerging market, growing consumer interest for this type of grass-fed beef, especially for burgers,” Williams says. In the past, there was a great deal of variability in the quality of grass-fed beef, including ground-beef products, he points out. “One purpose in developing this company was to take some of the volatility out of grass-fed beef,” Williams says.

The company has developed customers for its ground beef and other products who hadn’t been eating beef at all, including vegetarians, but not vegans. “People buy our products from grass-fed animals for very specific reasons,” Williams says. “Our cattle don’t come from feedlots or CAFOs, they’re out in pasture. We also don’t use any feed-grade antibiotics or hormones.”

Both he and Kurtis believe grassfed animals are different than grainfed, and these differences show up in products processed from the animals, like ground beef. “For example, we think there is a distinctive flavor to our burgers because the animals graze in forage and pasture,” Williams says. “There is no blandness to our ground beef, it’s one of our most highly-flavored products. It’s more beefy-flavored, even slightly nutty.”

The processors Tallgrass works with make it a practice to kill their cattle and fabricate them first.
Most Tallgrass ground beef is made into burgers, as well as “heat-and-eat” products, sausage and meatballs. “Our ground beef even finds its way to white tablecloth restaurants because they are looking for high-quality beef products,” Williams says. •

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, a contributing editor and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.