Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Angus Anguish: Is Angus Beef Worth the Money?

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.

A: Yes.

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.

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If you like this post, you might also dig:

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SOURCES

  • “Angus Cattle.” Wikipedia.org.
  • CertifiedAngusBeef.com.
  • 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.
  • McDonalds.com.
  • 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.

(Photos courtesy of dlb Angus, StarCinema Grill, and Telegraph.co.uk.)

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15 comments:

MCM Voices said...

Kris, what an excellent article.

Angus beef has only been at the edge of my consciousness - the local supermarket has it in a separate case along with the other most expensive meats that I rush past on my way to the cheap weekly specials. I appreciate your very informative article, which clears up the mystery about the price as well as pointing out another case of consumer snookerage by big agribusiness.

By the way, isn't beef actually pretty good for you - the organic grass-fed type? Could you write an article about that please (healthy-good/maybe not so cheap but still interesting especially if written by you)?

Amy K. said...

My fave McDonalds burger is the Big Mac, so it wins no matter what the competition, but I have to admit it has 29, not 9, grams of fat.

Thanks for the info on Certified Angus vs. mere Angus - I was among the unwashed masses who didn't know there was a difference!

Kris said...

Amy, you're right on about the fat content. The typo's been fixed. Thanks for the heads up!

Hops said...

To my (not very discerning) tastes, beef is beef. If I want something special, I'll go for the bison, not some marketing fantasy brand with no real difference besides price.

Funny about Money said...

LOL! My old Daddy is prob'ly shimmering in his funeral urn. An escaped cowboy (he ran away to sea at 17 to escape the ranch life), he always believed that what he called "black Angus" was far and away better than any other beef. I never could tell any difference.

He would've loved this post. :-)

Anonymous said...

At the very least, Choice Angus beef is the very best beef I ever had. Once you try it you will never go back to any other beef. The "Angus burgers" you get from fast food joints taste horrible. I don't for one minute think it's real Angus beef. If it is real Angus beef, we all better only buy Choice, Premium or Certified Angus beef because I know that's the real deal.

Aro2220 said...

I've noticed this trend in the last few years and I was wondering about it. Black cows.

I never really found Angus burgers to taste much better and now I know why...they're piggybacking on the hype of this elite angus beef company.

I am tempted to buy Angus beef at my local grocery store sometimes under the delusion that it's somehow magic beef. But when I look at it, it's not very marbled, and doesn't look very fresh. In the end I choose the regular beef that is marbled, a better cut, and a better price over the 'magic angus'.

Anonymous said...

It is correct that the top quality Angus beef is better. If you want the best, definitely go for the better cuts as suggested to get the flavor and tenderness. Better yet, buy a half beef of Angus. You won't go back to store bought. Beef is healthy according to http://allwomenstalk.com/7-reasons-to-eat-beef-you-are-not-aware-of/, but I tend to agree that I don't want the antibiotics and growth hormones that are regulars in most of the store bought beef. I raise Angus, so I'm a tad bit prejudiced. We purchased Angus for the quality and found out that it really was quality so stayed with them. But when hubby and I go out to dinner, we've had very few steaks that compare to what we have at home.

Anonymous said...

Q: What is Angus beef?

A: It’s not, as some have suggested, bovine anus.



typo - you might want to fix

International Farming said...

Kris, nice job on pointing out the real truth of this Angus story - MARKETING. As you pointed out, only 8% of Angus animals meet the "self determined" standards set by the Certified Angus Beef (CAB) organization. The real truth is, that 8% of other beef breeds, such as Hereford, Charolais, Beefmasters, etc... would also meet the "rigorous" standards set forth by the CAB. The TRUTH is: Angus Breeders have done a better job of Marketing their cattle!

chrisala256 said...

Being a Butcher for 20 years I can tell you that the CAB brand cannot be beat...leaving Prime Beef out which the every day consumer cannot afford....CAB is ALWAYS Choice grade or higher...These store chains offering Angus Beef in the Select grade are ripping you off...That's one grade above what goes in dog food...Angus Beef is never Select Grade....Angus Beef is well marbled and tender...It might be a company making nice profits....but the CAB brand stands for QUALITY......If your going to pay for a steak why not go with quality and taste...ill pay for CAB"choice" meat....but the rest are better off in your dogs bowl....

Anonymous said...

What good is this web page when a large portion of the article is covered up by a Mastercard advertisement. Iwill not use your webpage again. Good Job!

Anonymous said...

Angus beef is healthier than other beef. If you want to eat healthy, buy Prime Angus beef.

http://www.angusjournal.com/ArticlePDF/CAB%20Marbling%2010_08%20AJ.pdf

Anonymous said...

It is hype foisted on all you gullible yuppie consumers.

Anonymous said...

i am interested in what angus beef are fed. i seem to have heard something about "artificial feed" which the chinese seem to be fond of adding to edibles.