COLLEGE STATION — As market research goes, the Beef Customer Satisfaction research project recently finished by Texas A&M University is like a freezer full of meat: its contents won’t be digested all at once.
It could, however, help sell more of a commodity that has lost ground in the past two decades to other meats.
“The size of this study is a story in itself. It’s huge,” said Dr. Jeff Savell, a Texas A&M professor of animal science and a researcher at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. “As far as I know, it’s the largest consumer study ever done and the only study of its kind for the beef industry.”
The study, funded by the National Live Stock and Meat Board, is a followup to groundbreaking consumer research conducted by Texas A&M’s animal science department in the 1980s. That research led to widespread changes in the marketing of beef, such as closer trim on meat cuts and renaming of some grades of beef.
The current research should prove useful to an industry that saw consumer expenditures on beef rise only 26 percent from 1979 to 1989. In the same period, poultry expenditures rose 99 percent and fish and seafood expenditures rose 88 percent, according to the American Meat Institute.
Tracey Neely, an animal science graduate teaching and research assistant, said the Beef Customer Satisfaction project is part of a push by the beef industry to get an idea of what consumers like and how they prepare beef.
It cost almost $1 million and should provide a database of information that is useful for the beef industry well into the next decade, Savell said.
The new project collected extensive data from 1,106 households in Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. Each household cooked meals with beef twice weekly over a six-week period, with the researchers providing three different cuts in four different grade levels for the 12 meals. The cuts were selected from carcasses at three different packing plants and information on which cuts went to which household were also kept.
After choosing cattle in April and May 1993, then working with consumers between June and October 1993, the researchers began compiling and then analyzing the data. Initial results were provided to the Meat Board on Aug. 12, but data analysis will continue for several years, Savell said.
“It took an army of people to collect the information. That’s why we don’t do this every year,” he said.
Each meal was identified for participants by cut only and not grade. Instructions were given for safe storage and defrosting, but preparation methods were left up to the consumers. Two evaluation forms were completed for each meal — a three-page form by a designated preparer and a shorter one for another household participant.
A 23-point evaluation scale for each cut of beef and journal- type entries on preparation and other aspects of each meal provided both a sensitive and detailed method for data collection, Savell said. Consumers answered questions on their own lifestyle and purchasing habits, their attitudes on various meats and preparation styles, and numerous other topics.
A trained sensory panel in College Station also rated cuts identical to those given each household. Mechanical measurements for tenderness were also taken at Texas A&M’s meat science laboratories.
Neely said no full written report is yet available on the data. However, she added, the data will be used to produce a number of papers and other reports over the next several years, beginning this fall.
The trained sensory data will be used to provide a benchmark on how to compare future research results with consumer satisfaction. This will save the beef industry from continually having to conduct consumer research, said Dr. Rhonda Miller, who directed the sensory panel.
“We’ll be using this data for the next decade,” she said.
One of the initial recommendations to come out of the project is that a key to marketing beef over the next decade may be in helping consumers understand how to prepare it, according to the team of A&M researchers who are analyzing the data.
“For an industry as big as beef, we know very little about several key factors involved in customer satisfaction,” Savell said. “We have a lot of customers with little idea on how to prepare different cuts to make them most palatable.”
The researchers did make some general and preliminary conclusions from the data. Foremost was that there were very high satisfaction levels for the beef consumers rated, even for the lower grades.
Consumers tended to cook their beef to fairly high degrees of doneness, with an average of more than half preparing it at least medium well. Charcoal grilling was found to be the preferred cooking method and seemed to add the most to consumer satisfaction.
However, Savell cautioned, the sheer volume of data means it will require careful consideration by the industry. However, it also will have many potential uses over the next decade, he said.
“I think a challenge the industry faces is how to encourage consumers to employ methods that bring out the best in beef,” he said. “This data will help it do that.”