In the annals of American ad campaigns, few slogans have been as successful as “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.”  Eighty-five percent of consumers recognize and like that tagline, according to a national marketing survey.


Compare that to another national survey, one that found only 18 percent of the respondents knew or guessed the proper cooking temperature for ground beef.

The survey, which questioned 933 U.S. adults this past July, was more encouraging than a similar food safety-tracking poll in 2007, when just 13 percent of respondents could name the proper cooking temperature for hamburger.  And it’s a long way from a 2000 study in which only 8 percent correctly identified 160 degrees F as the internal temperature to which ground beef must be cooked to kill any dangerous bacteria that may be – but shouldn’t be – mixed into meat.

So 18 percent is steady improvement, but it’s still only one in five, and the latest trend analysis notes that when asked to name the safe cooking temperature for ground beef “a disturbingly high number (39 percent) of respondents simply say they don’t know.”

Monitoring consumer confidence in beef, which runs a close second to chicken as the meat most favored by Americans, is one job of the national Beef Checkoff Program, established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill.

Under the checkoff program, $1 per head is assessed on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable fee for imported beef.  States get to keep half of that and send the other half to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which administers the program under U.S. Department of Agriculture supervision. The money goes toward marketing and promoting beef and various kinds of research, and is also for food safety education.

But despite long-standing education programs such as “Fight Bac,” ad campaigns featuring slogans like  “Safe and Savory at 160” have not exactly caught on.

The beef industry has been asking consumers about cooking temperatures in an open-end question for years and “the results have been uniformly dismal,” according to the most recent research report.

post it magnet-REV.jpgAnother thing that hasn’t changed in the past five to 10 years: the use of thermometers to determine doneness.  The number of people who claim to regularly use a thermometer to see if meat is thoroughly cooked remains stuck at just 14 percent.  Meanwhile, 59 percent of survey respondents say they determine whether ground beef is cooked or not by whether it is still pink inside.

That doesn’t mean they’re unconcerned about food safety.  In the checkoff’s latest “Consumer Perceptions of Beef Safety” survey, bacterial contamination was rated the number one safety issue.

Respondents were asked to rate their concerns about eight wide-ranging issues–including bacteria, pesticides, mad cow disease,antibiotics and hormones–on a scale of 1 to 5, from “not at all concerned” to “”extremely concerned.”

The questions were asked, the report says, to gauge “concern levels for issues that might affect beef but also to get a reading on the things activists might successfully leverage to frighten consumers.”

Among the findings:

— Bacteria in food is the number one food safety issue for consumers and has been for much of the past decade, except for a few years when it was eclipsed by mad cow disease.  In 2001, 39 percent of consumers said they were extremely concerned about bacteria while nearly a quarter (24 percent) said they were not concerned. In July 2010, 40 percent said they were extremely concerned about bacteria and only 7 percent said they were unconcerned.

—  Mad cow disease, which made 34 percent extremely concerned, remains a scary consumer issue but significantly lower than the 50 to 55 percent who said they were extremely concerned about this issue in 2002 and 2003.

— Pesticides have remained a fairly high concern since 2001, as have chemical additives in food.

— The number of respondents saying they are extremely concerned about hormone use in cattle production has remained fairly steady, with 32 percent today compared with 30 percent in 2001.  Antibiotic concern also has varied little, and is at 29 percent currently but  has averaged 26.5 percent since 2001.

—  Concern about genetically modified foods remains virtually unchanged, standing at 32 percent extremely concerned today, compared with an average of 31 percent since 2001. Similarly, concern about irradiated foods has averaged 26 percent since 2001 and is at 25 percent today.

— Consumers generally are more concerned about the safety of food in restaurants than the safety of food they purchase at supermarkets and prepare themselves.

— Almost 60 percent of respondents indicated they believe the beef they buy at the supermarket was raised in an industrial, factory-style farm and of those, 58 percent (a third of all consumers) said they were concerned about the safety of such beef.

— Respondents ranked beef marketed as “certified organic, no hormones, no pesticides and no antibiotics,” however, as low in believability and said they were more inclined to trust claims of “locally produced, grass-fed and naturally raised.”  But while many said these attributes would be “nice to have,” they were not willing to pay more for such benefits.  A greater number of respondents said they were willing to pay more only for extra lean beef.

The report says that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service may soon require non-intact beef (ground beef) and so-called  “pumped product” (beef with added solution such as water and sodium, typically marketed as processed to enhance tenderness or flavor) to carry labels advising consumers to cook the products to 160 F.  The beef industry has long resisted such warning labels, and has sued to block any regulation. (Some food safety advocates also are wary of labels, arguing that it is the industry’s job to prevent contamination, not the consumer’s responsibility to provide the “kill step” to eliminate pathogens.)

The 2010 survey likely didn’t persuade many in the industry that the time has come for safe-cooking temperature labels.  The study found that a quarter of the respondents said such labels would make them see the products as less safe than other beef.