At E&M; Foods in the Chicago suburb of Skokie,
customers are drawn like magnets to the best and most expensive
beef: porterhouse, T-bone, strip steaks, filet mignon.
"There was a low-fat craze that came and went. The veggie craze
came and went. But beef that's part of us," owner Ed Figlewicz
said. "Americans have always liked beef."
Indeed, the line spills out into the street some Saturdays at
the Paulina Market on the city's North Side, where steaks are the
prized item in a butcher shop bursting with beef.
Upscale steakhouses buzz with big dinner crowds in the downtown
Loop and along Rush Street, a hub of Chicago nightlife, similar to
scenes in other cities from Boston to Seattle.
After a decade of flat sales, beef is back.
For much of the '90s, a nation long known for its love of
burgers and steaks seemed to have had its fill of red meat amid
concerns it might not be so healthy.
But now no one's asking where the beef is. U.S. beef consumption
rose 2 percent in 1999 to 66.2 pounds per person, the highest since
the 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Factoring in higher prices, consumer spending on beef shot up 5
percent to $49.2 billion, according to Chicago-based marketing firm
"It has come back," says Ray Lekan, co-owner of the
51-year-old Paulina Market, which had one of its best years ever in
1999 thanks to beef. "It's slowly becoming more popular again.
"It's shaken off the cholesterol onus, the gray cloud that's
been over it for so many years," he says.
Beef's glory days may not last. Production is forecast to fall 3
percent this year, driving prices still higher, due to the
liquidation of breeding herds during down years. And marketing
research shows chicken will surpass beef as Americans' meat of
choice by 2005.
But last year's modest jump brought huge relief to an industry
that has been standing still while chicken and turkey fly up from
"For the first time in 20 years, we're seeing beef demand
stabilize," says Chuck Schroeder, chief executive officer of the
National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
"It isn't a skyrocketing increase, but it says consumers have
renewed interest and enthusiasm for beef."
Several factors explain the latest beefing up of America. Among
With the U.S. economy soaring, people are eating out more than
ever and high-cost items such as steaks and other choice cuts of
beef are more popular.
The nationwide craze for the low-carbohydrate, high-protein
diet has made beef a diet staple for many.
Taking a page from the poultry industry's cookbook, the beef
industry has been stressing convenience and speed. From
rotisserie-style roasts to fully cooked ground beef and
microwaveable pot roasts and stews, it has been flooding
supermarkets since late 1998 with heat-and-serve products that can
be prepared in 10 minutes.
"The industry got the message" says Chuck Levitt, meats
analyst for Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago. "It knew it needed to
prepare more quick-preparation products."
A $30 million yearlong marketing campaign launched last fall
promotes beef's nutritional value, focusing on nutrients such as
zinc, iron, protein and several B-vitamins. The beef industry even
claims lean red meat can be part of a cholesterol-lowering diet.
The resurgence of beef has made the livestock industry a rare
bright spot among U.S. farmers, many of whom are in the doldrums
over low prices for agricultural commodities.
Recovering from hard times that ended in about mid-1998,
ranchers enjoyed the best prices for calves in December since 1994.
Feedlots have been profitable since early last summer.
Besides U.S. consumption, they also have benefited from strong
U.S. exports to Asia and elsewhere.
Among the beef industry's biggest fears is an economic downturn.
"There are two places people 'steal' from when their money gets
tight: their food budget and their insurance company," says Dave
Maher, a meat industry analyst for Securities Corp. of Iowa. "That
means they might eat out less, and they might cut back on the