KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Cargill Protein recently took a deep-dive into consumer attitudes toward beef. The result was “The Future of Beef,” a report on the thoughts and behaviors that drive consumers’ purchasing decisions when they shop for beef.

MEAT+POULTRY caught up with Chuck Gitkin, chief marketing officer at Cargill Protein North America, to discuss “The Future of Beef” study and how the company’s questions to consumers will lead to solutions for Cargill Protein’s customers.

“Beef is Central to our business at Cargill Protein, and also, it’s very important for us to have thought leadership in the industry and really to be able to help our customers understand the latest of what consumers and shoppers are thinking,” Gitkin explained. “So, we like to do this kind of landmark study from time to time just to update our thinking or understanding of the consumer.

“The consumer is changing a lot,” he added, “and that pace of change is increasing. So, it was important that we did a study like this now to have that kind of marker for what the consumers’ are thinking and, again, to be able to share that with our customers.”

Chuck Gitkin, chief marketing officer at Cargill Protein North America

The study also was timely as families began preparing for the back-to-school season. A key finding of “The Future of Beef” was that parents especially need quick, simple-to-prepare meals in which to incorporate beef into a variety of meal options — such as burgers, fajitas, spaghetti and meatballs, stew and chili — that are short on prep time and easily divided into portions.

“It is top of mind, but I think at the same time when we did our study, we found that consumers and families are really rallying around beef,” Gitkin noted. “It’s something that is versatile; it has a comfort aspect to it. It’s cost-effective.

“So, it really is a nice way to bring the family around the dinner table. If I’m a mom or a dad I'm fueling my family with it, but I’m also bringing them something that’s emotionally positive. I’m doing it on a budget. What we’re finding from our research is that beef fits really nicely into all of those things.”

Another insight from the study was consumer reliance on ground beef. According to the report, “…when American beef consumers were asked what attributes they associate with ground beef, 80 percent said it is versatile and can be used in many dishes; 78 percent said it is quick and easy to prepare; and 70 percent said it is great for everyday eating.

MEAT+POULTRY: Ground beef was really top of mind for a lot of consumers in terms of convenience. Can you talk about those findings?

Gitkin: When we talk to consumers what they’re telling us is that beef has a unique flavor and texture, and those benefits really exist across all forms of beef frankly. So, if it’s a cut of steak or if it’s ground beef, there is uniqueness, it’s craveable.

And again, there are many different ways that it can be prepared. It's part of different types of cuisine. It also can be very much customized to different family members — whether they want to have Taco Night or a Meatloaf Night or if they like their particular cut of beef cooked well done or cooked more medium or medium rare — there’s a lot that the family can do to make it work for individual members of the family. But again, it all brings that family together.

M+P: What about meal options and trying to save time? How does beef fit into that picture? What can producers do to help consumers with that? 

Gitkin: I would say a couple of things: Not only is there a functional versatility around beef but there's also an emotional versatility. So, you know when you start thinking about, what role does beef play for a weekday dinner? It becomes reliable, it becomes something that you can count on to feed your family.

But then you think about beef as something for a gathering or a family party or a holiday party. It’s something that really becomes part of the celebration because beef can be very special. It can bridge multiple dayparts.

I think where companies like ours need to go is about creating formats that really allow for that flexibility and that versatility whether it’s new cuts or whether it’s new ways of packaging different products and really allowing as much flexibility while ensuring freshness and quality and food safety — that really should be the goal of companies like ours and sometimes that could play into something like portion control or it could be something that’s prepped to go right in the oven where you’re really just doing the cooking step not the prep step.

I think the role for a company like ours is thinking through the process — what does the consumer do from the moment they take that package out of the refrigerator to the moment that they bring it to the table, and where can we come in and help them put it all together?

M+P: It was interesting that you mentioned packaging. What trends are you seeing in terms of consumer demand for the types of packaging that they feel is most easily accessible and convenient for them?

Gitkin: I think that historically consumers have looked to their retailers and to companies that produce beef for freshness for quality for safety. Now, what they’re looking for is convenience. So, it isn’t something that’s easy to take some of the product, cook it but leave some of it in the fridge and not have that be messy or be something where I worry about freshness. So, these are the kinds of packaging solutions that we need to bring forward.

Sometimes the consumer’s looking for a quick meal that they want to be able to say that they prepared but they don’t want to have the mess and they don’t want to be handling meat and things like that. Sometimes they want to go full-blown and have the whole cooking experience and get elbow-deep into it.

But sometimes they don’t even want to touch the meat, but they want to be able to say they cook the meal. They don’t want to heat something that’s already cooked. And so, finding a way for us to help them go from refrigerator to pan to plate — those are things that consumers are going to look for more and more.

M+P: We talked about ground beef, but what other cuts are consumers expressing an interest in given that they also want convenience?

Gitkin: What they’re looking for when it comes to convenience is a muscle cut of beef; something that’s not a full roast but something that's a little bit more friendly when it comes to [preparation]. It could be a skirt steak or something that’s a little bit more economical, but I can cook one for one member of the family or for two members of the family and not have to be able to cook it for the entire family if they want to do something else.

There’s of course a range of everything from very economical to very high-end. That’s really where consumers are seeing a benefit. And so that’s one area where I think there are some good options for consumers.

M+P: There’s a lot of work on the processing end that goes into value-added proteins. What more do you think Cargill should be doing? You’re all but in the kitchen making the food.

Gitkin: I think that’s the competition — once you deliver a product that people enjoy eating and you ensure that it’s fresh, and you ensure that it’s safe and you ensure that it’s good quality, then we’re going to compete on creating value and creating convenience.

I would still say that it’s really a rather small part of the industry and our job really is to merchandise and always try to go further and be able to really help consumers see the benefit of that and delight them with the products that really are different. [For example] If you look at the hamburger patties that we do that have jalapeño and cheddar or have mushroom and Swiss and things like that, that’s almost become table stakes.

We’re all exploring patties that are a combination of beef and mushroom and we’ve done that for some of our restaurant customers as an example. It all plays into another trend that we’re very much aware of and trying to leverage and help our customers with is: More is more when it comes to protein.

Our consumer wants more protein; they want it from a variety of sources. They’re still very pro-meat, but they like other things involved. And so, the idea of doing something that’s a plant- and beef-based patty or to do that in a meatloaf or something else to give them more protein — to give them different protein options — is also the kind of thing that they’re looking for.