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The Right Meat Cut Can Be a Bone of Contention

Raging debate over bone-in meats offers an opportunity for retailers to educate shoppers

With or without? There are many questions consumers ask themselves at the meat case, and often, it’s whether they want their protein with the bone left in or taken out.

And the reasons? Well, there are several. Those advocating for the bone left in claim the meat tastes better, has more moisture, tenderness and nutrients. Customers requesting boneless cuts generally have less experience in the kitchen and are seeking convenience; they don’t want the hassle of dealing with a bone.

Bone-in meat also tends to be cheaper—usually about 50 cents to $1 per pound. “Consumers may feel they’re getting more value with bone-in due to the lower price,” says Kari Underly, principal and owner of Range Inc. and Range Meat Academy in Chicago, which help customers in the meat business.

“The bone-in versus boneless debate is the ultimate consideration for carnivores,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, principal with 210 Analytics, San Antonio.

According to IRI market research firm in Chicago, boneless cuts are roughly 73% of all meat sold (in terms of cuts that can be boneless or bone-in), and for chicken that number jumps to 89%. Boneless chicken breasts have added $1 billion in sales since 2013, says Jonna Parker, principal for Chicago-based IRI Fresh.

Conversely, sales of bone-in beef cuts are increasing. Statistics from Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) show higher-end cuts are growing in popularity. In 2018, sales of bone-in ribeye roast were up 8.6% over 2017; sales of T-bone steaks jumped 13.9%; and sales of strip steaks increased 9.5%. However, the insights also showed that overall, boneless steaks accounted for 75% of all steak sales last year, a 1% drop over 2017 but 4% less than in 2015.

A lot of this is due to consumers’ inexperience in the kitchen. According to the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI’s) Power of Meat report, only 47% of Americans consider themselves knowledgeable about meat and 72% of millennials say they barely know what to do with it.

“There are consumers who are aren’t very knowledgeable about meat, and all of a sudden you throw a bone into there,” Parker says. “Plus, who wants to pay for a bone? Many consumers don’t understand the importance of it.”

Beefing Up Bone-In Sales 

While age and kitchen experience dictate what people will buy, the two often correlate. Millennials, ever seeking convenience, typically want their meat bone-free, while baby boomers, who grew up with bone-in meat, don’t see it as a problem. But some millennials are getting nostalgic for bones, for eating the way their grandparents did, Underly says. “They’re informed and educated, and the bone brings back that traditional feel around meat, especially for beef or pork,” she says. Those opting for boneless cuts may do so for the flexibility. “Boneless meats can be more versatile.”

Grocery stores are not making a big distinction between bone-in and boneless meat, says Roerink, because they have little space for it among all the product attributes consumers are interested in.

However, this is a missed opportunity, Underly says. This is especially true given that 94% of customers say they buy their meat at the grocery store, according to FMI research. The difference is the marketing and merchandising opportunities around bone-in cuts, she says. “It’s about the stories you can tell—the back stories,” she says. “You can build around it for character. Bone-in is a way to position your market.”

Annual Bone-In Steak Sales: Top 4 Cuts

Source: IRI

Boning Up on Education 

Supermarket butchers who leave the bone in have an opportunity to talk to and educate consumers and make a connection with them, Underly says. “We want to open that dialogue,” she says.

The arguments surrounding meat bones are also an opportunity to provide classes or demos. “Butcher types like to hang out in the back room, but this is a good opportunity to get out front of the customers,” she says.

Aaron Rocchino is the owner of The Local Butcher in Berkeley, Calif., which sells everything bone-in, but he’ll debone in anything customers ask for—and he gets plenty of requests. He says his customers are very receptive to being educated. He talks customers through “how to best utilize the cut they’re getting,” he says. “Cooking’s a little different with the bone in, so we give tips and tricks on how to cook it evenly.”

Top Selling Bone-In Steak Prices

Source: IRI

In-store demonstration is a perfect opportunity to educate, and FMI data shows that 42% of consumers said they would be willing to try new cuts of meat, if advised.

Plus, as Parker from IRI points out, the Power of Meat showed 41% of Americans don’t tend to try anything new or different. “This is despite all the variety available,” she says. “That’s really alarming. And meat is an expensive purchase. So you’re not going to necessarily gamble.”

Despite the fact that millennials and Gen Z consumers are adventurous, “I don’t think anyone’s educating them about bones, though steak houses are starting to do more, recognizing they haven’t had the education,” she says. “For the future of the meat industry, education and information are key.”

Stores Educate 

At Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant Food Stores’ 178 stores, sales of bone-in and boneless pork sell equally, but when it comes to beef and poultry, customers opt more frequently for boneless.

At Harmons stores in Utah, 70% of meat sold is boneless, and it’s due to convenience, says Lesli Sommerdorf, special events chef for the West Valley City, Utah-based retailer. Seven of the chain’s 19 stores offer food classes, and she says meat classes are among the most popular. “I get into [bone vs. no bone] in the classes,” she says. “We go to the butcher and talk about the difference, and we do side-by-side tastings.”

In an industry that struggles with staffing, digital resources can take the pressure off, Parker points out. Grocers can provide information on their apps or have screens in stores to provide education and recipes. Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion is running a kiosk test in one store. It provides recipes to customers after they’ve answered questions such as which cut of meat they’re cooking. 

Annual Boneless Steak Sales: Top 2 Cuts

Source: IRI

“We spend so much time educating on price, but we need to spend more time educating on why a specific cut of meat makes a great meal,” Parker says. “That’s the 21st century way of building loyalty: being part of [consumers’] education and solution.”

Chuck Gets to the Meat of the Matter 

In March, the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner brand launched Chuck Knows Beef, a new beef virtual assistant “to help consumers at the meat case,” says Jason Jerome, senior director of retail and foodservice engagement for Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff.

Shoppers at the meat case can click a link from participating retailers’ websites for ChuckKnowsBeef.com, or scan a QR code on the meat case and Chuck will help with specific meat cuts and recipes. “He’s our all-things-knowing-beef tool,” Jerome says. “He’s there to help [customers] understand the meat case.” And that includes questions about bone-in versus boneless cuts.

“Chuck can be a great resource for people who work for retailers and are learning the meat business,” says Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “He can be a support tool and bring that expertise to the meat counter.”

Mostly, Chuck responds to questions about recipes, Jerome says. “But the main thing is, he’s educational,” he says. “Most people stick to the four or five cuts they know, so this can help with that confidence.”

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