Naming Rights: New Meat Labels

The beef and pork industries announced a new voluntary naming system for meat cuts that they hope will make shopping for meat less confusing, but consumers might not see the changes for at least a year, and many stores won’t adopt the system. Retail experts tell us that they don’t expect that the new names will result in higher prices, however.

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What’s in a name? When it comes to cuts of beef and pork, it might depend on where you shop.

In April 2013, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and National Pork Board (NPB), which are trade-industry groups, announced a labeling system that includes new or simplified names for 197 beef cuts and 121 pork cuts. NCBA and NPB hope that this reboot of the Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards (URMIS), which was created in 1973 to standardize the names of meat cuts, will make shopping for beef and pork less confusing and will encourage consumers to buy cuts of meat that they haven’t purchased before.

Their solution: shortening the long, technical names that were adopted in the original URMIS. “Pork shoulder blade Boston roast bone in,” for instance, now will be known as “blade roast,” according to the URMIS list. (See “Name Changers.”) However, the URMIS naming system is voluntary, which means that meat retailers can call their meat cuts whatever they want without any industry repercussions. For instance, in some parts of the South, “blade roast” will continue to be labeled as “pork butt.” At The Butcher’s Block in Laramie, Wyo., owner Alan Johnson calls “blade roast” by the name “pork roast” and says his customers would be confused if he were to change the name. At Paulina Market, which is a 64-year-old Chicago butcher shop, owner Bill Begale labels “blade roast” by the name “shoulder (Boston butt),” because he says his customers are accustomed to his shop’s regional names.

Confused yet?

In Begale’s beef section, you also can get “London broil (tri-tip)” and “Boston roast (honeymoon pot roast),” neither of which is on the URMIS list. However, Begale has used names such as “flat iron steak” and “sirloin steak” for years, and those names now match up with the URMIS list. Begale says he always named meat cuts according to his own specifications, and he won’t change.

“We have what we have, and we call it what we call it,” Begale says.

At press time, we hadn’t found any meat retailer that adopted the new URMIS names, and NCBA didn’t know of any retailer that switched its labels. Theo Weening, who is the global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, tells us that in the “coming months” the store plans to begin selling four new cuts of pork loin (more on these later), which were created by the new URMIS list, but he has no plans to change the rest of the stores’ meat labels.

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Click chart above to view full presentation

NCBA and NPB tell us that their field representatives will visit butchers, grocery stores and other meat retailers across the country to update label machines and train employees to use the new URMIS list. The two groups hope that most grocery stores will switch to the new names within a year. Patrick Fleming of NPB says the old URMIS names had 85 percent compliance, even though they had been in effect for 40 years. He admits that many retailers never will adopt the new names, because they prefer to call their meat cuts by already-short regional names, such as pork butt, with which their customers are familiar.

“If I were one of those stores where my customers were loyal to me because they have learned to identify my cut and my name, then I would not go with the new system,” says Christopher Hurt, who is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “I would lose what little differentiation I was able to develop with my customers over the years.”

What’s good news is that the two meat-pricing experts and the five agricultural economists whom we interviewed don’t expect the new names to have any immediate effect on retail prices.

“With so many other factors affecting retail price—weather, livestock supply, beef production, export markets, competing proteins and health of economy, to name just a few—I don’t know if I could isolate and quantify the impact that URMIS is having,” says Joe Muldowney, who is the vice president of Urner Barry, which studies meat prices.

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