Alternatives Steal the Plate

Evan Sung

Soaring protein prices, environmental consequences, and consumers’ desire to adopt healthier habits have chefs thinking differently about meat and other center-of-the-plate choices.

Meatless Mondays began as a home-front initiative to conserve food during both world wars. However, in 2003 the program was reborn as a public health awareness campaign encouraging Americans to cut back on meat since a number of diseases and health issues had been linked to its consumption. Today, there are larger and ever-growing concerns about the environmental impact of meat production. Not to mention, the rising cost of beef. But are these philosophical conversations and consumer campaigns actively affecting how much meat is—or isn’t—served?

Numbers Don’t Lie

Americans’ primary source of protein is still beef. Last year, 7.9 billion pounds of beef was purchased in foodservice, representing 31 percent of the total foodservice protein market by volume, according to Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Of the $145 billion wholesale value of all food sold into foodservice in 2014, beef was the No. 1 product, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all dollars.

Despite those statistics, the USDA reports the per capita consumption of beef fell to 54.2 pounds annually—the lowest level since it began recording this statistic in 1965. Overall, beef has seen a decline in consumption since peaking in 1976 when Americans on average consumed 94.1 pounds each annually.

There were two complicating factors related to beef consumption last year. The first was lower supply. “This was driven by herd contraction that took place because of the major drought,” Krebs says. “On top of that, we saw beef prices increase 7 percent at wholesale level and 18 percent at retail.”

This has led to several changes. “Portion sizes are going down, since meat is costing more, and everyone is more conscious of their health,” says Frank Alafoginis, vice president of Capital Meat Company, a family-owned specialty meat distributor located in Hyattsville, Maryland. “Chefs are also starting to use more of the animal than ever before to help combat rising food costs. We’re constantly looking for new cuts to combat the costs of traditional cuts like ribeyes, strips, and filets.”

Breakout hits for Alafoginis’ company have been the hanging tender steak and the teres major cut. Krebs says the cuts with the biggest sales growth last year include the Delmonico, flank steak, T-bone, and porterhouse. Despite all the interest in new cuts, the fastest-growing beef item at foodservice last year was the old-fashioned burger.


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