Leading The Charge
By Deborah Silver
Editor, ProvisionerOnline
NCBA’s Beef Innovation Group has a plan to increase beef demand, and a clear agenda for achieving that goal.

In 1998, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), recognizing an evolving industry with new technologies, research and changing consumer tastes opening doors to product possibilities, created the R&D Ranch, a group designed to jumpstart product development.
Indeed, over an eight-year period, R&D Ranch, funded through the Beef Checkoff program, participated in the launch of more than 100 new beef products, drawing on the expertise of scientists, culinary professions, operations experts, product-development specialists and marketers, as well as its own internal staff.
But this year NCBA decided it was time for a change — a name change, to be exact — to signal the organization’s broader scope. Thus was born the Beef Innovations Group, formerly R&D Ranch.
“R&D is a critical piece of the product-development process, but it’s only one piece,” says Ellen Gibson, NCBA’s executive director of new product initiatives. “We have a diverse set of people working on new products, and we wanted the name to reflect that. Plus, it was important to have the word ‘beef’ in there, which is what we’re all about.”  
Beef innovations, that is, and the “long-term vitality” of the industry, as the group’s mission statement says. “That means increasing beef demand,” says Gibson.
Clear agenda
Achieving that goal, of course, requires long-range planning. Toward that end, the newly titled Beef Innovations Group recently brought together 15 industry movers and shakers, including processors, retailers and media members, to answer the questions, what products should be developed and for whom?  Said meeting participant Tim Goodman, director of research and development with Swift & Co., a longstanding partner with R&D Ranch, “The idea was to get a sense of direction so the organization could continue to meet the needs of the industry. That meant exploring the issues that are confronting consumers today to get a sense of where the product focus needs to be.”    
Answers emerged loud and clear during brainstorming sessions, Gibson says. “We looked at what needed to be on the market by 2007 and worked our way out toward 2010,” she explains. “This is where we’ll make sure our team is focusing.”
• Youth products. “We have to develop kids as beef eaters on both the retail and the foodservice front,” notes Gibson. “If you introduce beef young, they’ll eat it throughout their lives.” That means not only introducing products that entice kids to purchase them, but also products that attract the primary meal preparers — mothers — and that leads to…
• Convenience products. Translation: products that work for time-strapped moms. According to Gibson, research indicates that mothers expect to have dinner on the table in a mere 15 minutes these days, compared to 30 minutes not so many years ago. “Mom is rushed and wants foods that are easy to prepare,” says Gibson. And that leads to…
• Products that are on Mom’s side. Moms need to know they can trust the products they serve their families. Obtaining endorsements from organizations outside the beef industry — think Good Housekeeping’s Seal of Approval or a thumbs up from the American Heart Association — are useful marketing tools, as is including symbols on packages that make it easier for consumers to identify and select products.
• Health and wellness products. The obesity issue in this country looms large over the food industry, and beef needs to address the issue head on, with leaner cuts and portion control, for example, and a strong good-for-you message.
• Foodservice products. The restaurant industry can’t be overlooked, says Goodman. “We have to figure out what else we need to do to put more beef on menus,” he says. “In large part, that will involve better educating of foodservice operators.”
The Beef Innovations Group gathering of industry leaders also identified what it called “assistors” and “resistors” — those issues that either help or hinder growth in beef demand. Among the assistors are a passion for beef, price and value, branding, and ethnic possibilities, particularly those that address the needs of the soaring Hispanic population.
Dominating the resistor roster is the ongoing confusion over beef cuts. “On the retail side, there are so many choices,” says Goodman. “Shoppers are asking themselves, what is it? How do I cook it? Everyone knows steak and hamburger, but beyond that, it’s a mystery to many.” And because consumers are unfamiliar with how to cook less mainstream cuts — and, for the most part, are not as adept at cooking as consumers of yesteryear — they end up with inconsistent beef-eating experiences. “We have to get the work out to consumers quickly about the various cuts and how to prepare them, so we don’t lose their interest,” notes Goodman.
Or, as Gibson puts it, “We have to eliminate the resistors and be the world’s preferred protein.” Toward that end, NCBA is hoping to reconvene a similar session with industry leaders in two years and access where the industry is at that point.
Full plate  
In the meantime, the Beef Innovations Group already has a full agenda of issues to tackle. Based on the popularity of the beef value-cuts program, the group is looking to expand the category by developing additional new cuts. NCBA’s research team currently is exploring the potential of the knuckle and chuck roll. Other product-centered strategies include an awareness campaign for shredded beef and the development of handheld beef products.
Its youth is already in full swing. The group recently conducted focus groups to generate ideas for family meals, as well as to find ways to satisfy the individuals within those families. A team dedicated to developing products for kids has been established, and is test-marketing several kid-oriented products this summer.
The group also remains on call to state beef councils and industry partners, including retailers and foodservice operators, to help with a range of issues, from technical to marketing.  “The idea of the Beef Innovations Group is to act as an all-encompassing resource,” says Gibson. NP