Thursday, October 12, 2006

Federal government's beef checkoff program promotes Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinner; but what is in it?

The federal government's beef checkoff program in July announced an ambitious campaign to promote beef sales through restaurants at TravelCenters of America, a leading highway retail chain.

The beef program's press release said the campaign "has gone off like a rocket, selling nearly 40,000 Ranch Steak meals nationally in the first 20 days of the campaign."

In response to repeated requests over several weeks, neither the retail chain, nor the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, nor USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service would provide complete nutrition facts for menu items such as the Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinner.

Here is the gushing advertising description:
Try our new 9 oz. Cowboy Ranch Steak. This lean steak is chargrilled to order, brushed and topped with tasty Cowboy Butter, and partnered with our huge trucker-sized baked potato, and your choice of vegetable. Dinner starts with a salad and warm rolls and butter.
Wow, I thought. That's quite a meal. Steak, Cowboy Butter (?), trucker-sized potato, rolls, more butter, and yet more, all for one low price.

In response to my first inquiries, the director of restaurant marketing for TravelCenters suggested I contact their partners at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a private trade association that serves as a contractor for the federal government's beef checkoff program on such campaigns, for information about the steak itself. Meanwhile, she provided the following information about the meal, "based on comparable meals we've analyzed":
Ranch Steak Dinner: less than 430 mg sodium, less than 160 mg cholesterol, less than 15 g fat, less than 500 calories, less than 10 g carbohydrates
These amounts seemed far too low if they were supposed to refer to the full meal described above. One interpretation of the correspondence was that these amounts represented everything except the steak, whose data I was supposed to get from the cattlemen.

The cattlemen offered the following information for the 9 oz. steak:
  • 337 calories
  • 13 g fat
  • 4 g saturated fat
  • 51 g protein
At first glance, I thought these nutrient amounts for the beef alone still seemed far too small. Even if the steak were very lean, 9 oz. would have to contain much more than 337 calories. But, my correspondent from the cattlemen revealed that the steak -- which was advertised without asterisk as 9 oz. -- lost weight in preparation and was really only 6.75 oz. as served. Without any external fat, let alone Cowboy Butter, it is possible for a very lean 6.75 oz. steak to have 337 calories.

At this point, the cattlemen and the TravelCenters decided that they could not give me a tally for the full meal. From the advertised description, my hard-working nutrition students estimate this meal would contain perhaps 1200 calories, but who really knows?

I asked USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which is supposed to have approved this promotion as it approves all beef checkoff promotions, for better information. After all, the federal government encourages voluntary disclosure of nutrition facts information, so it would make sense for the feds at least to insist on such disclosure for meals the government itself promotes. They passed me from one person to the next, and finally stopped returning my (very polite!) email and telephone inquiries.

So, the story ends here. In its advertising campaign -- marked with the beef check mark indicating official status as "government speech" -- the federal government encourages Americans to patronize TravelCenters of America and at a rocket-like pace gobble many tens of thousands of the enormous Cowboy Ranch Steak Dinners. But don't be nosy about what's in the meal or what it might do for your health. Neither your government nor its business partners will tell you that.

I hope potential restaurant partners read this coverage before pursuing similar checkoff collaborations in the future. Taking comparatively small sums of money from the government's checkoff program brings scrutiny and expectations of nutrition disclosure that they might have avoided as ordinary private-sector companies pursuing strictly private-sector advertising messages.


Anonymous said...

All I can say is, "Wow".

My guess would easily be over 1000 calories.

Calories so clearly would add value to menus and add important information for consumers.

I know in Canada we've got a bill before our House of Commons, Bill C-283 to try to get calories on menus.

You sure don't need a degree in dietetics to know that more calories, if you're watching your weight, won't be helpful.

My favourite calorie obscenity (not in terms of taste but rather in terms of how ridiculous the number is) is Aussie Fries at the Outback Steakhouse. Billed as a side dish, it weighs in at an astounding 2,900 calories.

Joe said...

You know, "weight before cooking", like how the "quarter-pounnder" doesn't have 4 oz. of beef by the time it is assembled.