National Meat Week 1985 has come and gone, but you'd hardly have known it from reading the supermarket ads in the newspapers.
Retailers here and elsewhere in the country generally ignored the event, which was created a year ago by the American Meat Institute, a trade group, to reverse declining sales and counter what the industry regards as "negative publicity about red meat in the diet."
The Supermarket News, a trade publication, reported this week that "few retailers interviewed around the nation . . . even appeared to know there was such an industry promotion." The headline on the story said, "Retailers Hardly Notice as Meat Week Slips by Again."
"A lot of people didn't notice," said Sara Lilygren, manager of AMI's public relations.
She said the retailers' failure to promote National Meat Week, Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, surprised her because "stores are so eager to sell more red meat, just as manufacturers are."
Lilygren said she hopes retailers will be more supportive in the future. "We are only in our second year," she said.
All this suggests that the meat industry intends to keep on trying to persuade consumers to increase their consumption of red meat. One example of that decline is in beef sales, which have fallen from 94.4 pounds per person in 1976 to 78.5 pounds in 1984.
The forecast for 1985, according to AMI economist Ewen Wilson, is for a further drop.
That trend has heightened the tension between the meat industry and its adversaries. The industry wants consumers to focus on "what red meat does for you -- it is a major source of protein and iron and contains important vitamins and minerals." Critics of that line include the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer activist group.
CSPI nutritionist Bonnie Liebman, for example, applauded the absence of interest in National Meat Week, saying that "it is better to have gone unnoticed, because Americans should be cutting back on consumption of red meat, which is a major source of fat. We need to eat less fat, not more, to reduce our risk of heart disease and certain kinds of cancer, bowel and breast cancer, in particular."
Wilson said health questions about red meat are having some impact on sales. "But we don't know how much," he said, "and it may not be as great as the meat industry makes it out to be. We tend to point at that and say it is what is hurting us."
In fact, he said, economics may be a more significant factor. During the mid-1970s, there were large supplies of meat and low prices, Wilson said. "The cowboys were taking a bath, so to speak. They were losing so much money they reduced their herds, resulting in an abnormally large amount of red meat on the market and exceptionally low prices. Consumption figures went up as consumers took advantage of the beef bargain."
When herd size stabilized, supplies tightened and prices started rising, Wilson said. Beef consumption dropped.
At the same time, he said, the poultry industry was able to expand. "They were not hurt by the increase in grain prices, because chickens are more grain-efficient," he said.
The poultry people also saw an opportunity to grab a bigger share of the market, Wilson said. Producers expanded, chicken prices dropped and consumer sales went up.
Here's why, according to Wilson. "During the 1950s, chicken was about three-fourths the price of beef, but today it is only about one-third as much as beef. A broiler chicken cost an average of 81 cents a pound in 1984 compared to $2.39 for a pound of beef."
For a consumer going to the supermarket to buy for a houseful of children, Wilson said, that lower-priced chicken "is an attractive alternative."