September 17, 2008
Within the last few years, Angus beef has leapt beyond a little known, well-respected meat to an omnipresent leviathan. From Food Lion to McDonald’s to that dinky Irish Pub half a block from the bank, it’s become the go-to beef for discerning (and not-so-discerning) dining establishments, as well as freezers across our fair nation. In fact, the way things are going, it’s just a matter of time before lunch ladies offer Angus Tacos instead of Mystery Meat Tacos on Taco Tuesdays.
But what exactly IS Angus beef? Why has it become so popular lately? Does it really taste better than regular beef? Is it healthier? Is it worth paying higher prices for? Let’s discuss.
Q: What is Angus beef?
A: It’s not, as some have suggested, bovine anus. Nor is it a cut of beef, or the region from which the cattle hails. Instead, Angus beef is the meat from Angus cattle, “the most popular beef breed of cattle in the U.S.” (Wiki). Known for their adaptability, they “mature at around two years of age, and have a high carcass yield with marbled meat” (Wiki).
Widely assumed to be better tasting and tenderer than regular beef, Angus doesn’t come cheap. Supermarkets and fast food joints sell it at higher prices because it’s cultivated a good reputation through careful marketing and good word of mouth.
Q: Okay. Got it. So what is Certified Angus Beef?
A: Certified Angus Beef is a company brand. Owned by the American Angus Association, CAB’s mission is to “increase demand for registered Angus cattle through a specification-based, branded beef program to identify consistent, high quality beef with superior taste.”
In other words, CAB monitors meat, and gives their special stamp of approval to that which exceeds 10 stringent, self-determined criteria. According to their own website, “only 8 percent of beef makes the grade.”
Q: Is there a difference?
A: Yep. CAB-stamped beef is harder to find, and generally considered to be of higher quality than mere Angus beef.
Q: Okay. So what’s the problem?
A: The problem is, CAB did their jobs so well that we Americans started to associate the word “Angus” (as opposed to “Certified Angus Beef”) with high-quality meat. Now, every crummy supermarket and two-bit fast food joint can market Angus Beef, and consumers assume it’s the good stuff. It’s been wonderful for cattlemen, who’ve taken some PR hits in recent years.
CAB itself claims: “Since its origin in 1978, our company has established an extremely positive reputation for the brand. Subsequently, this has led to imitators in other Angus programs. Many have specifications below our ‘modest or higher’ marbling level, and most do not monitor product use and promotion in restaurants and grocery stores as we do. Unfortunately, the growing number of Angus brands creates confusion among consumers and producers alike.”
Q: So, we’re charged more for Angus beef, even though it isn’t necessarily a better meat.
Q: But, whether or not it has a CAB stamp, I heard Angus beef just tastes better. Is this true?
A: Not exactly. While Angus beef does seem to be tenderer, many feel the flavor isn’t that much different from regular beef. One NPR expert says, “Trained experts can taste the difference … But if you go to a USDA Choice piece of meat that has the right kind of marbling, they’re all going to be just about the same.”
Still, taste is relative. If somebody truly finds Angus beef more delicious than Brand X, who’s to argue?
Q: Okay. So here’s the next question: why wasn’t Angus beef popular before now? Why has it only hit the big time in the last few years?
A: Marketing and consumer demand, man.
Despite recent health trends, it turns out that a LOT of Americans want big, rich food. Not only that, but they want it done well, and they’re willing to shell out more money for it. Restaurants have responded to with fancier breads (ciabatta), better produce (portobello mushrooms), and supposedly higher-quality meats (Angus beef). Supermarkets have done the same, with a wider range of upscale offerings.
It’s a trend marketing folk call “premiumization,” and it’s proven enormously profitable for the food industry. Angus beef is a great (if not the best) example.
Q: And now, even places like McDonald’s and Burger King are catching on.
A: Yes. Let’s take McDonald’s as our example. Historically, it’s “‘long suffered’ from poor ratings when it comes to overall food quality” (Luna). To remedy that situation, Ray Kroc’s megacorp is offering premium foods. Among other items, it includes a range of Angus burgers, replete with “crisp green iceberg lettuce, sliced red tomatoes, [and a] bakery-style sesame seed roll.” They go for around $4 or so (Hamburger).
Of course, while the nicer fixins are great, this can’t be overstated: Mickey D’s isn’t serving the high-quality Certified Angus Beef. It’s just regular ol’ Angus beef, which hasn’t been proven to taste any better.
Q: And they’re making mad dough from it?
A: Yep again. According to CNN, McDonald’s shares went up 18 percent by mid—2007, just months after the burgers were introduced. The story is similar in other companies.
Q: How could this be bad?
A: McDonald’s is a major player in the beef industry. There haven’t been shortages reported yet, but if Angus burgers become the norm, they’re bound to happen. Plus, the bigger an operation gets, the more difficult it becomes to maintain quality control. Those halfway decent Deluxe burgers you get today? Could be chemical-riddled approximations of beef tomorrow.
On a more personal note, as a former employee (along with 10% of the rest of the U.S. according to Fast Food Nation), I can tell you firsthand that McDonald’s isn’t particularly concerned with the product it presents to the public. I’m guessing it’s a matter of time before the fixins morph into half-rotted iceberg lettuce, floppy tomato wannabes, and something kind of resembling bread. But, uh … that’s just me.
Q: You look like you want to say something else on this.
A: I do. There’s also the cost/quality issue. As we mentioned, no one’s proved that (non-CAB) Angus beef necessarily tastes better. Yet, consumers are still shelling out $4 a pop for Angus burgers, or corresponding amounts for Angus beef at their local Pathmark.
Q: I thought this was a healthy eating blog. What about the nutrition?
A: Beef is beef. It’s not the healthiest thing in the world, nor will it ever be. If there’s any added danger, it’s that Angus beef burgers are often marketed as indulgences, meaning they’re made larger and include additional perks (more toppings, bigger buns, etc.). To wit: a Big Mac has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat. An Angus Burger Deluxe has 740 calories and 41 grams of fat. If given the choice between the two, which would you opt for?
Q: Um. The Big Mac?
A: Uh … I guess. Actually, I’m not sure what I was going for with that question. Next!
Q: Second-to-last question: if I want a really good piece of Angus beef, what should I look for?
A: Look for the USDA grade (Premium, Choice, Select, etc.). A CAB-certified Prime cut of Angus beef will cost a small fortune, but could make you forget about other meats permanently.
Q: Final question: how do you, Kris, feel about all this?
A: To be honest, I’m not sure. But all of a sudden, I want a burger.
Readers? What do you think? Chime in on the comment thread.
If you like this post, you might also dig:
- The Problem With Diet Foods
- Food Labels That Ate My Sanity
- Food, Frugality, and Fighting Brand Loyalty
- “Angus Cattle.” Wikipedia.org.
- Cuozzo, Steve. “How to Tell if it’s Prime Time.” The New York Post. 9/6/07.
- Enis, Matthew. “Consumers Eat Up Meat Marketers' Gourmet Branding.” Supermarket News. 6/4/07.
- Gentile, Gary. “CKE Sues Rival Over Angus Burger TV Ads.” Associated Press. 5/26/07.
- Hamburger, Zoe. “The Big Apple Welcomes the Big Angus!” PR Newswire. 8/21/07.
- Kavilanz, Parija B. “Bigger is always better for this burger chain.” CNNMoney.com. 5/22/07.
- Luna, Nancy. “McDonald's set to roll out premium patties Monday.” The Orange County Register (California). 3/1/07.
- Macarthur, Kate. “They may not know what Angus is, exactly, but diners and shoppers shell out for higher quality.” Advertising Age. 5/7/07.
- Mahon, Paul. “From the Editor's Desk.” Ontario Farmer (Canada). 5/20/08.
- Walkup, Carolyn. “Fast feeders fill up menus with premium beef offerings: Angus, sirloin items join upgraded fare at major QSR players.” Nation’s Restaurant News. 3/26/07.
- Ydstie, John. “Cattle Branding: The Rise of Black Angus Beef” All Things Considered. NPR. 10/3/04.
- Yavorcik, Carin. “Angus label doesn't necessarily ensure high quality.”
The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio). 8/29/07.