Fresh beef and pork will always be consumer favorites. And when times are good and people have more money in their pocket, they’re more than willing to spend more for high-end cuts.

Forty-four percent of beef sold at retail is prime or choice, the two grades of beef that roughly fall under the heading of “premium,” according to the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

The total beef supply at retail has been on the rise for several years, says Alison Krebs, the association’s director of market intelligence. Dollar sales of all cuts in the fresh case are up 14% from 2014 to 2019.

And consumers don’t just want more beef, she adds. They want better beef. The association defines “premium” as beef items where retailers receive a higher average price than for the average price for all cuts taken together.

“Consumers have been enjoying that higher quality beef, higher quality cuts,” Krebs says. “When the economy does well, they’re extremely popular.”

The decision by Tyson Fresh Meats, a division of Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, to expand its Chairman’s Reserve line of premium and prime meats this year shows the confident is bullish on demand for top cuts of meat, says Ozlem Worpel, senior brand manager.

“Multiple studies show that consumers are willing to pay more for high quality, tasty protein,” Worpel says. “This is great news for our retail partners, who use the Chairman’s Reserve brand to prove they can provide the quality that consumers are demanding.”


Wagyu, tenderloins, strips trending up

Ribeyes are always a big draw, but when consumers have money to spend, they also buy more tenderloins, strips, and premium beef breeds like wagyu.

Prime and choice’s share of total beef sales has risen significantly in recent years, Krebs says. Close to 10% of all production this year, for instance, will be prime.  

“Consumers are signaling to producers, ‘I love this higher quality beef, I’m willing to pay for it,’” Krebs says. Taste is of course by far the top driver, and consumers are drawn to the higher marbling in the top grades. But convenience (how easy is to cook?) and creating memorable “occasion experiences” also play roles in consumers’ definitions of premium, she adds.

When it comes to merchandising premium cuts, it all comes down to education, says Jason Jerome, the association’s senior director of retail and foodservice engagement.

Consumer education is vital, of course. But with premium cuts, it’s particularly important to educate the people selling them.

“You really have to educate the folks in the meat department, through videos, photos, hands-on training,” Jerome says.

Costco and Sam’s Club, for instance, spend a lot of time educating their butchers and other meat department employees on prime and choice cuts, Jerome says.

Those two retailers are the leaders in bringing prime beef to a national consumer audience, he says. Costco has had a prime program for years. Sam’s took its program nationwide this year.

Many regional retailers sell prime, but Costco and Sam’s are the first to do it “on a grand scale,” Jerome says. “Those two have dedicated prime departments. They are the ones who have really moved the needle.”

Historically, the vast majority of prime beef has been sold through foodservice channels, Krebs says. Now that it’s becoming bigger in retail, it’s creating all sorts of opportunities for retailers to merchandise in new ways.

That’s coincided, she says, with an increase in other merchandising that could be classified as premium: value-added and additions, sometimes done instore, sometimes by the supplier or a commissary or central kitchen. “Kebobs, premarinated meats, cuts with cheeses or seasonings. It’s been very positive for retailers.”


Raising the bar

Tyson’s Chairman’s Reserve line includes Premium Pork, Premium Beef, Prime Pork and Prime Beef products. All meet strict standards to ensure product excellence and points of differentiation for the retailer or foodservice operator, Worpel says.

In the meat industry, premium can have a variety of meanings, Worpel says.   The Chairman’s Reserve brand, however, has specific guidelines so product to consistently exceed consumer expectations.

And while Chairman Reserve Prime products may not carry the “premium” tag, they are also held to exacting standards, Worpel says.

“We’re equally focused on both the premium and prime tiers,” she says. “No other competitor offers this robust of a portfolio, and no other brand delivers this level of consistency, quality and consumer confidence. The dual-protein, two-tier brand is a unique offering for the meat industry.”

When it comes to merchandising premium cuts at retail, clean meat cases, good traffic patterns and circular ads are just the starting point, Worpel says.

The Chairman’s Reserve brand team partners with retailers across the nation to solidify brand recognition of quality so consumers will drive past the competition to shop with them.

“We are always evaluating new products and unique merchandising opportunities. This year, the Chairman’s Reserve brand rolled out a beef brick pack and a pork tomahawk. The brick pack offers long shelf life and appealing packaging for shoppers, while the tomahawk is a stunning presentation on a menu or in the meat case.”


What makes it premium?

For Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Fresh Meats’ Chairman’s Reserve Premium Pork, product must have marbling scores between 2 and 5 and color scores between 3 and 5 and be pH-selected for natural moisture-holding capacity. In addition, Premium Pork cuts are hand-selected to ensure consistent marbling, firmness, texture and size.
For Chairman’s Reserve Premium Beef, product must be upper 2/3 USDA Choice (or higher) quality grade, Modest 00 (or higher) marbling, medium or fine marbling texture, Grade A maturity and moderately thick (or better) muscling.