July 09, 2014

USDA beef quality grades may not be doing the job

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Written by: Chelsey Johnson

Consumers are willing pay a premium for steak that is labeled as a superior product. For this reason, the USDA has a long-standing quality grading system. However, a study published in the July issue of the Journal of Animal Science suggests that USDA quality grades mislead many consumers.

“We had reason to suspect that quality grade terminology was unlikely to convey much about beef quality to consumers,”  said Dr. Eric DeVuyst, Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and coauthor of the study. “We found that to be true and, in some regards, that the grades can actually mislead consumers.”

To determine the degree of misconception related to the current USDA quality grading system, two national surveys were conducted. Each survey assessed consumers’ knowledge of how USDA quality grades relate to leanness and juiciness as well as the relationship between quality-grade names and their relative prices.

The questions analyzed in this study were taken from the Food Demand Survey (FooDS) project in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. Survey responses were collected online, and the respondents were sampled to match the U.S. population in terms of age, gender, education and region of residence. The responses of about 1,000 consumers were analyzed for each survey.

The first challenge for consumers was to “rank the following USDA beef quality grades in terms of leanness with one being leanest and three being fattest.”

Respondents were then shown the words ‘Select,’ ‘Choice,’ and ‘Prime.’ Only 14 percent of respondents were correctly able to rank the terms ‘Select,’ ‘Choice’ and ‘Prime’ to the correct leanness. In fact, 57 percent of respondents thought Prime was the leanest.

“We were somewhat surprised to find that consumers believe ‘Prime’ indicates the leanest beef grade,” DeVuyst said. “U.S. consumers have been trained to associate leanness with ‘healthy,’ perhaps incorrectly. So, in their minds, lean beef is to be preferred and thus associated with the term ‘Prime.’”

8424794896_b885736f9c_hThe authors said they suspect respondents associate the term ‘Prime’ with a superior product and perceive leanness as superior to fatness.

After this challenge, the respondents were asked to “rank the following USDA beef quality grades in terms of juiciness with one being the juiciest and three being driest.”

Again, respondents were provided with the options of ‘Select,’ ‘Choice’ and ‘Prime.’ Even though a majority of consumers failed to correctly match leanness to quality grade, 33 percent of respondents correctly ranked the grades based on juiciness.

In addition, respondents were asked to match pictures of steaks (from grading cards) with their respective quality grade names. On the left-hand side of the screen, 3 steaks with varied marbling were shown. Respondents were requested to “… match the pictures of the beef rib eye steaks to their respective USDA quality grades.” Then they were provided with the options of ‘USDA Prime,’ ‘USDA Choice’ and ‘USDA Select’ to match to the pictures.

Only 23 percent of respondents were able to correctly match the steak with the most marbling to ‘Prime.’ Similarly, only 24 percent were correctly able to label the steak with the least marbling as ‘Select,” and only 15 percent of respondents ranked the pictures correctly.

In another survey, respondents were asked to match the pictures of steaks with the retail price they would expect to pay for the steak. The responses showed that only 29 percent of consumers were able to correctly match the picture of the Prime grade steak with the highest price. Only 55 percent indicated that it was the lowest priced steak. By contrast, 50 percent thought that the picture of the Select grade steak was the highest priced, whereas only 35 percent correctly matched it to the lowest price. Overall, less than 25 percent of the consumers surveyed were able to rank the pictures correctly.

This lack of understanding can present a number of problems to the industry. Taken as a whole, the results indicate that consumers may believe they are purchasing a more satisfying steak than they actually obtain. When the product does not meet consumer expectations, consumers are less likely to make future beef purchases.

“In the article, we suggested using some more descriptive terminology. For example, ‘Prime—higher fat, most juicy,’ ‘Choice—juicy,’ and ‘Select—leanest, less juicy’ to better inform consumers,” DeVuyst said. “The goal is to better match consumers’ expectations with steak quality. More descriptive terminology can help consumers better form expectations about eating satisfaction at purchase and avoid disappointment at consumption.”

Media Contact:
Chelsey Johnson
ASAS Media Communications
Chelsey.johnson@jacks.sdstate.edu

Scientific Contact:
Larry Reynolds
ASAS Media Communications
Larry.Reynolds@ndsu.edu