DENVER – The Joint Product Enhancement Committee, which represents all segments of the beef industry, identifies research focus areas and recommends funding of program activities to the Beef Promotion Operating Committee. Its goal is to improve customer satisfaction and drive beef demand. At the Cattle Industry Convention and Trade Show in Denver, Colo., held earlier this month, committee members discussed priorities for the coming year.

Maintaining quality was a high point. “Quality today is all the rage. It’s taking hold of this country in a real and transforming way,” said Tom Brink, of J & F Oklahoma Holdings.

As the president and COO of the cattle ownership arm of Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, one of the largest US cattle feeders, Brink presented his perspective on the movement toward higher product quality. “We argued for a long time whether you could even get a premium…we’ve made real progress,” he said.

Market signals direct many cow-calf businesses, but not all. “It’s the person who doesn’t have a plan at all that costs us all money, because those cattle don’t have as much value,” he added. They also produce beef less favorable to consumers, the committee’s main focus.

A smaller beef checkoff budget—down by more than $600,000 from 2004-’05 – creates challenges, but also helps hone their goals, said Larry Corah, vice president for Certified Angus Beef LLC, who serves in an advisory role. He shared the three main areas for checkoff-funded product enhancement research in the coming year: flavor, aging and premium grinds.

“I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that flavor is what drives consumer satisfaction,” Corah said. “It’s what’s really keeping us in this game and allowing us the demand we have.”

The committee is encouraging research looking at new technologies to predict beef flavor. Behind taste is the need for tenderness, and aging is one of the most widely recognized ways to improve that trait. “Yet there are so many components of aging—time, temperature, humidity, etc.,” he said. The committee wants to see studies on how those variables affect the eating experience, especially in product with Slight-50 to Small-50 marbling scores (high Select to low Choice).

An estimated 97% of US consumers eat ground beef. It accounts for 67% of foodservice beef sales and nearly half of retail beef purchases. “The emerging and growing point of differentiation with channel operators is this whole area of premium grinds,” Corah says.

He referenced fast-casual restaurants built around the “better burger” concept, like Smashburger and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. “They’re having quite an impact on our industry,” he said.

The goal is to understand how non-traditional sub-primal grind sources and specific fat sources impact the product. “We need to evaluate the effect on flavor profiles, fatty acid profiles, shelf life and numerous other attributes, and then compare that to other grinds,” Corah said.

The committee will select successful projects in the next few months.