The Trouble With Steak

WE DON'T EAT MUCH STEAK IN OUR HOUSE. IT shows up every couple of months. There's no complaint from our three children. I admit our eating habits aren't especially interesting. But they may be increasingly typical. We're a tiny part of a great national upheaval: the demise of steak. Time was when a thick steak symbolized our affluence and hardiness. Be American, eat steak. Welcome to John Wayne country. No more.

We're consuming more of almost everything-chicken, vegetables, juices and soft drinks (table). But beef is a glaring exception. Since 1975, per-person consumption has dropped almost 25 percent. And the beef we do eat is increasingly in Big Macs, pizza toppings and tacos. Agriculture economist Bill Helming estimates that 58 percent of beef consumption comes in the form of ground beef, up from 25 percent in the 1960s.

The saga of steak's decline could be seen as yet more evidence of the wimping out of America. We're becoming a timid, dainty people so health-conscious and politically correct that being seen eating anything so ostentatious as a big slab of beef is simply bad form. As pop sociology, this theory is swell. The only trouble is that, with one exception, I doubt it's true. Ostentation, excess and bad taste have not exactly gone out of style, even flit were clear (and it's not) that eating steak represents any of these things.

The exception, of course, is health consciousness. Steak clearly has been stigmatized by its fat and cholesterol content. The beef people claim, naturally, that the hazards have been exaggerated. Beef is roughly comparable with chicken, they say, in part because beef has less fat today than a few decades ago. I won't enter this debate-I'm no nutritionist-except to say that I suspect its impact on beef sales is overrated. The reason is that, although Americans are health-conscious, we're also hypocritical about it.

We do it when it's convenient and find excuses when it isn't. I want to eat the right thing, but the chocolate doughnut stays. The proof of our hypocrisy lies, literally, in the eating. The National Center for Health Statistics recently reported that 35 percent of adults are now over-weight, up from 25 percent in 1980. Says the NCHS: "The increase in the prevalence of overweight [adults reflects] energy intake from food [that] exceeds energy expenditure in physical exercise."

In short, we overeat and underexercise. We talk health while we snack. If we wanted to eat more steak, we would. Somehow we'd find a reason; but we don't. Why? One possible reason is that it's too expensive. Beef prices have actually declined after adjustment for inflation. Between 1970 and 1996, they dropped 32 percent. Chicken prices, though, dropped slightly more, 42 percent. Some shoppers are surely switching to chicken to save money. Still, the price change isn't big enough to explain steak's dramatic slide.

What then? How about this: our steak isn't very good. Or, at least, it's not good enough. It's not tasty enough, tender enough or convenient enough-and predictably so-to make us buy it. That's economist Helming's theory. It sounds correct to me. Our family has had fabulous steak, and we've had leather. We would pay a bit more for steak if we craved steak a bit more. Probably many families would. By and large, Americans can afford extra extravagance in their meals. Since 1980 food spending has dropped from 13 percent to 11 percent of disposable income.

To Helming, the beef industry is a case of ignoring the customer. The cause is Balkanization. The industry is so splintered that no one can ensure quality meat. There are 900,000 ranchers who keep eat-tie on the range before selling them to feedlots. The feedlots fatten the cattle for the slaughterhouses-four big companies control about 80 percent of the market--that sell to wholesalers. The slaughterhouses don't control what the ranchers raise. And the ranchers don't have much reason to improve quality, because they're paid mainly by the weight of their cattle.

It hardly matters whether the steak is tender and delicious or tough and tasteless. To cut costs, ranchers have switched to breeds of cattle that seem to produce inferior meat. The system is perpetuated, Helming argues, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's meat-grading programs, which classify beef as "prime," "choice," "select" or "standard." With the USDA's seal of approval, slaughterhouses don't take responsibility for their own product. So steak's slide defies conventional wisdom. It mainly reflects industry practice and government policy.

Chicken is different-and instructive. Lacking government grading, brand competition has flourished. The Tysons and Perdues must care about product reputation; otherwise shoppers will buy something else. Helming thinks the beef industry should do likewise. He'd scrap the grading system (note: this is not meat safety) to compel competition on the basis of brand recognition and quality. The trouble is that Helming's idea (which I like) is too radical for most of the beef industry.

But there's a recognition that quality is the problem. Some slaughterhouses, feed-lots and ranchers are experimenting with "alliances" to raise quality and try branded products. There are signs of a beef revival; steakhouses are on the rise. But these harbingers are pitted against powerful demographics: aging baby boomers will eat less steak, and many of their children don't have a taste for it. Helming fears that if present trends continue, beef could become a "specialty" food. I hope that doesn't happen, but it could--a sad fate for a proud tradition.