By José R. Ralat
It began with a sad cut of beef. At least that’s the story. The year was 1975 and Ohio rancher Harold Etling was unhappy with his steak dinner. As he put down his knife and fork, he realized things needed to change.
The problem, in Etling’s opinion, had to do with labels. At the time, the USDA grading scale was, in descending order, Prime, Choice, and Good (now known as Select). The grades were based on the marbling of the meat, with the general theory being that the more marbling — or fat — within a cut, the better it would taste and the easier it would be to chew. But what the USDA had done prior to Etling’s meal was to shift the line between Choice and Good, reducing the amount of marbling required for a cut to qualify as Choice and resulting in more beef — and in Etling’s opinion, lesser beef — falling into the Choice category.
The USDA’s position was that the reduced marbling requirement did not noticeably affect the flavor or quality of the meat, actually improved the consistency of the grades, and would serve to encourage the general public to eat leaner, and therefore healthier, cuts of beef. Opponents argued that lean beef needed its own designation that would similarly ensure quality and flavor, and not simply reflect a lesser amount of fat.
In light of the USDA’s new grading system, Etling decided he was not going to take his flavorless steak sitting down. He saw an opportunity to capitalize on the grading confusion and helped organize a network of ranchers to approach the American Angus Association. The organization, whose mission is to boost dependable, first-rate Angus production for consumer benefit, seized the opportunity to establish its own standards for the optimal cut. They called their self-determined endeavor Certified Angus Beef.
“It was the perfect storm for creating this demand for product,” says Jeffrey W. Savell, leader of the Department of Animal Science’s meat science section at Texas A&M University in College Station. “They had the ability to give you this product that you wanted that was more like something from the past. If the grade change had gone in the other direction, the industry would have never had the need to create such a category as Certified Angus Beef.”
The celebratory nature of steak primed it for the upgrade. “It’s the trip to the steakhouse. It’s Mother’s Day. It’s Father’s Day. It’s the promotion. It’s the birthday,” Savell says. “People celebrate and they celebrate with beef. So that helps drive the higher quality, the higher price product, because that’s what you’ll celebrate with. If you’re going to go for a celebration, you want it to be good.”
To read the rest of the story, please go to Branding Beef.