Beef from vitamin E-supplemented cattle, reported to keep its bloom much longer than regular beef, is due to hit the shelves as early as this summer, promising to revolutionize the meat industry in more ways than one.
"Our meatcutters said there's a definite difference. It looked better for a longer period of time," said John Story, the senior director of meat and deli at Fairway Foods in Northfield, Minn., about a test run he did with vitamin E beef last summer.
"And you don't have to spend as many man-hours rewrapping the product," he added. "It looks brighter, richer and more appetizing," noted a Midwestern director of meat and seafood at a chain with 25 stores, who ran his own sales test on vitamin E beef early this year.
He added that vitamin E beef had "better shelf life, better appearance and better consistency."
He called vitamin E beef a product that "gives my customer longer shelf life and gives us less shrink."
While the extra hours netted by the fresh and rosy look of this beef may help retailers lower their shrink by cutting back on discounts and discards, the extended shelf life at the meat case might also pose a risk to consumers.
"Some retailers may use this to put out meat that's on the verge of being spoiled," noted David Schardt, an associate nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington.
An assortment of beef cuts, produced from cattle fed vitamin E for at least the last 100 days of their lives, was sold as part of a trial run in 12 stores, including Houston-area Kroger Co. units; Minneapolis-area Holiday Plus stores; Reno, Nev.-area Scolari's Food & Drug units; and Longmont, Colo.-area Safeways during the spring and summer of 1996.
This test provided the data for a study, released earlier this year by the Englewood, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association, titled "Strategic Alliance Vitamin E Planning for Profit."
According to the NCBA study, vitamin E can extend beef's rosy appearance in the case anywhere from a few hours to a day.
"It goes on a cut-by-cut basis," explained J.O. Reagan, the executive director of science and technology at the NCBA's Denver office. The shelf life of filet mignon is usually "eight to 12 hours and with vitamin E it can go 36 to 38."
John Isadore, senior vice president and general manager of Harris Ranch Beef Co., Selma, Calif., who supplied six stores with vitamin E beef for the study, noted that "in ground beef typically 18 hours is all they'll get and this will extend it to 27 hours."
Fairway's Story called the difference a lifetime in the case of ground beef.
Another retailer, who declined to be identified, put vitamin E's potential extended shelf life at much more than double Reagan's estimated one day of additional shelf life.
The added days of case life, according to the CSPI's Schardt, could be "a potential source of concern."
The prolonged shelf life of vitamin E beef was shown in the NCBA study to help decrease shrink. One of the findings cited the percentage of clod retail cuts discounted when displayed under supermarket conditions dropped from 26.5% to 19.1% with the addition of vitamin E.
"At one operation [that participated in the test] 24% of the beef had been discounted and it dropped to 10%," said the NCBA's Reagan.
The Midwestern meat director and Fairway's Story were both happy with the outcome of their vitamin E tests, although they were unable to give exact figures as to how the presence of E may have affected their shrink.
Harris Ranch plans to supply all its retail customers with vitamin E beef by this summer. Isadore said he hoped that Harris' whole customer base of 1,300 individual stores would be carrying it by Aug. 1.
The Midwestern meat director estimated that within two to three years the whole industry would be on E. Harris' Isadore was even more enthusiastic about the vitamin's future, expressing his belief that it would only take 18 months to a year for the industry to switch completely over.
None of the retailers that SN interviewed had told their customers about the presence of vitamin E in the beef that they sold during trial runs, nor were they sure that they would do so when they started carrying it on a full-time basis this summer.
"I'm not going to tell my customers [that I am adding vitamin E]," said the Midwestern meat director, adding "and I should find out if it's legal not to tell them."
David Dzanis, a veterinary nutritionist at the Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Md., said that retailers wouldn't be under any legal obligation to inform the public that vitamin E had been added to the cattle's feed, since the NCBA's daily test dosage of 500 international units of E fell within nutritional norms for the animals' diet.
"There's "probably no concern about people consuming this amount of vitamin E. ," the CSPI's Schardt concurred.
The NCBA's Reagan noted that "vitamin E does not slow down the growth of bacteria. Even with the vitamin E product, once you reach a certain level of microbacterial growth the color will change."
"Some bacteria greatly affect the oxidation rate and some don't," added Harris' Isadore. The question remains how the consumer will be able to recognize bacteria that don't increase the oxidation rate, and therefore do not change the color of a still-rosy piece of beef.
"It may mean that consumers have to be extra careful," said the CSPI's Schardt. "Meats are a major source of some of the most major food poisoning outbreaks."
"I don't see that [vitamin E] is a real benefit to consumers," Harris' Isadore added. "The true benefit is to retail."
"We'll give them a pack date and retailers will set their own dates. I think as they start using them I think they will be able to extend them," Isadore noted.
The Midwestern meat director noted that he didn't change his code dating during the test and had no intention of extending his expiration dates when he started selling vitamin E beef on a regular basis.
"If I can extend my [effective] shelf life on case-ready from one to six days and share that with my customer, then I become a hero," he noted.
Fairway's Story concurred that he wouldn't change his expiration dates either, stating that "if an item doesn't sell in a three-day period, then you don't need it."
The Midwestern meat director said that he didn't believe that there was much potential for abuse of vitamin E. "Bacteria counts may go up but not to the point I think is dangerous. It depends how the retailer manages his program, but I don't see it being a camouflage for bacteria. The customer is going to see it if the bacteria count is high enough."
Price effects of a large-scale conversion to vitamin E are not expected to be substantial. The additional cost of the recommended daily dose of E in the cattle's feed is estimated to run about $2 to $4 a head, but according to the NCBA's Reagan, "It's going to depend on the number of cattle."
The Midwestern meat director, who plans to carry everything but his ground beef in E by the end of July, said, "It costs minutely more. At $2 per head of cattle extended over 750 pounds of carcass you are talking about three-tenths of a cent a pound. It's a non-issue to me."
Fairway's Story said, "If I'm paying more, then I'm probably going to have to charge more, but I am hoping that costs will go down because of added sales and lower shrink."
What's more, vitamin E beef is no newcomer to the market. "Any store that is carrying certified Hereford is 100% vitamin E," explained the NCBA's Reagan. Not only, according to Reagan, has Hereford been E-supplemented for two or three years, but "anybody that has Australian beef is getting it naturally since they grass feed a high percentage of cattle."
The downtime between the NCBA test study and the date when supermarkets will be able to carry vitamin E on a regular basis can be attributed to product availability, noted Reagan.
As Harris Ranch races to complete the last 100 days of vitamin E-supplemented feed on its cattle, Fairway's Story noted that "I would be interested in carrying it regularly on all my beef."
"The sharper retailers will be using it," concurred the Midwestern meat director.
The NCBA study was sponsored by the Cattlemen's Beef Board, the U.S. Meat Export Federation, Roche Vitamins, the Colorado Beef Council and the Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee Beef Industry Councils.