It has been 22 years since the racing violins and xylophonic beats of composer Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from his ballet “Rodeo” poured out of television sets, making "Beef. It's What's for Dinner." one of the most recognizable advertising campaigns of the early 1990s.
Since then, public affection for beef — and traditional television — has waned, particularly among members of the millennial generation, who are less inclined to eat meat and more likely to encounter advertising on phones and computer screens.
In Texas, where cattle are almost as important to the state’s image as its economy, beef producers are trying to grasp both horns of that dilemma.
After a dinner of beef brisket on a warm fall evening in north San Antonio, members of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association sat back and listened to Jason Bagley of the Texas Beef Council outline how the trade group is moving away from print, television and radio ads.
To attract young families, Bagley said, the Beef Council is turning to food and recipe apps, its website and tailored cooking events.
“Times have changed from where we tried to reach everybody in a TV commercial or TV spot at night,” Bagley explained, referring to the popular 1992 ad narrated by the actor Robert Mitchum.
It is critical, Bagley told ranchers, to broadcast the industry message in ways that might seem invisible to them, tailored to the more informed palates of younger eaters, who tend to dine out more often and want healthier food options.
“They want to know more about their food,” Bagley said.
Since 1985, livestock owners nationwide have paid a $1-a-head fee on every beef cow they sell to finance research and promotion efforts like the 1990s ad campaign.
Last month, Texas started its own version of the program when it began collecting an extra statewide $1-a-head fee. Projected to raise $7.2 million in its first year, the fee will pay for
beef research and promotion efforts in Texas, like those being developed by the Texas Beef Council.
The group uses custom-made promotions for younger consumers, said Linda Bebee, the council’s vice president of domestic marketing.
Because millennials lack “cooking confidence,” the council targets them with how-to events like “Girls Gone Grilling” — where young women are invited to beef-centric grilling demonstrations — and online videos.
“There’s a lack of confidence in their cooking skills utilizing beef,” said Russell Woodward, the council’s senior marketing manager. “One of the focuses is to put the information out there how to grill beef, also how it fits in the everyday.”
Reaching out to young consumers makes just as much sense for the beef industry as it does for sports drink and snack food manufacturers, said Jason Banta, a Texas A&M University associate professor and beef specialist.
“Once you get them to be a consumer, eating, you expect that to continue the rest of their life,” he said.
And trends indicate that beef producers are wise to cultivate future customers.
The Texas cattle inventory has dropped by more than 22 percent since 2011, mostly because grazing land has been lost to drought and suburban development. Three years ago, more than 5 million female cows in Texas were bearing calves. Today, that number is about 3.9 million, Banta said.
Rising prices, more health-conscious consumers and the rise of efforts like Meatless Mondays, aimed at convincing people that paring down on meat is good for them and the planet, have dampened consumption.
Americans eat the equivalent of about 54 pounds of beef per person each year, down from 65 pounds a year in 2007.
Beef production is down, and prices are higher for the beef making it to auction, said David Anderson, a livestock economist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Anderson believes demand for beef is up and shows no sign of wavering.
“I think you have the situation where consumption is declining, but demand is actually growing,” Anderson said. He points to the raft of specialized burger, barbecue and steak restaurants popping up not only in Texas, but nationally.
While that may seem counterintuitive, Anderson said calculating beef consumption is tricky. The number is based more on production of beef cattle than the actual number of steaks and hamburgers purchased.
For younger consumers, gone are the Fred Flintstone rib eye slabs that were common in the 1970s.
Instead, there are artisan and leaner cuts from cows fed grass, not just when growing up, but all the way through auction and up to slaughter.
“I think the valuable part of meat is you don’t eat it all the time, and it’s something that should be regarded as a special moment,” said Julia Poplawsky, 26, whom the Texas Beef Council will not have to win over.
Growing up in Boerne, Texas, Poplawsky raised pigs as a member of the local 4-H. Today, she is the head butcher at Dai Due, a popular east Austin eatery that features a butcher shop out front. A few months ago, she approached her boss, Jesse Griffiths, the owner of Dai Due, with the idea of $10, six-ounce steaks every Tuesday for a weekly “ladies’ night” promotion. Since then, it has taken off.
“We have a lot of younger women in the restaurant,” Griffiths said. The cuts, as well as the restaurant’s contrast to the typical “cigars and leather chairs” atmosphere of a steak
Many of the diners are young families and singles, the desired demographic the Beef C
ouncil is looking for.
“I think casual fine dining has become trendy among my generation,” Poplawsky said.
As for the health concerns, Poplawsky says customers should look for beef in healthier, less fatty cuts “You shouldn’t eat it every day in cheaper forms,” she said.
Susan Levin, a registered dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nutrition advocacy group, finds the increased push by the Texas Beef Council troublesome.
“No. Beef is not healthy for you. There’s plenty of research to show that red meat products are associated with a host of chronic diseases,” she said, adding that using more rancher financed checkoff dollars is part of the industry’s endless cycle to keep itself in business.
“The irony of checkoff dollars is that you often see a lot of money poured into the same products the USDA is telling you to avoid or limit,” she said.
Jeanne Freeland-Graves, a nutrition professor at the University of Texas at Austin, disagreed. She said there is good in beef, particularly the nutrients iron and zinc.
“In the old days, it was cut with a big slab of fat on the outside. That has changed,” Freeland-Graves said. “I think it’s had a bad rap.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.