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Chicago grocery stores find security
in locally produced beef   
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[JAN. 10, 2004]  URBANA -- Knowing where, how and by whom your steak dinner was raised has recently become a more pressing question for Americans. Several independent grocery stores in Chicago have found a locally produced beef, marketed under the label Illinois Crown Beef, that they say they can sell to their customers with confidence because they know where it came from.

Wendel Underwood, meat manager at Sunset Foods in Northbrook, says that Illinois Crown Beef was his first experience with an actual producer rather than a meat salesman. "In working with Illinois Crown Beef, I know the origin of the meat -- that it's an Illinois-grown product and corn fed. I've gotten to know some of the people who were actually in the beginning stages of the feeding of the animal and production of the meat. The average salesman out there doesn't know who is producing the meat. All he knows is that the box is brown and it says ‘strips’ on it. He knows nothing about where the meat came from, how it was fed and how it was handled on its way to the market."

Illinois Crown Beef began with a survey of store customers conducted in 2001 by University of Illinois researcher Burt Swanson. The survey demonstrated a much greater concern from customers for quality when selecting fresh meat products.  After learning the taste, texture and other characteristics that customers wanted in high-quality beef, U of I research specialist Richard Knipe, along with his wife and colleague, Dar Knipe, who is a U of I small business marketing specialist, worked with several livestock producers located all over the state of Illinois to develop a specially branded beef product that would meet those specifications.

When they conducted the survey in 2001, mad cow disease was not a real concern.

"Our goal for the project was to bring beef producers and grocery store meat managers together," says Dar Knipe. "We wanted to improve the communication so that the producers would be raising a product that customers wanted."


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She says that the recent mad cow incident has resulted in customers wanting to know first that the beef they are about to buy is safe -- and local producers can give buyers information such as the age of the animal and what was fed. "It creates a closed market where the producers are in close communication with the grocery stores, so there is more control of the impacts that can create risk."

A specialty product like Illinois Crown Beef, which is not mass-produced, comes with a promise for higher quality and with a slightly higher price tag -- a price people are willing to pay for today for the peace of mind in knowing where the beef came from.

"You have to demonstrate to the customer that your product contains unique characteristics that differentiate it from other similar products," says Richard Knipe. "In the case of beef, these characteristics may include being able to identify where the product came from, higher consistency, higher quality, grass- or grain-fed, or raised without growth hormones or antibiotics -- with documentation to back up why it's better or safer."

Illinois Crown Beef is currently being sold in Chicago at two Hyde Park Co-Op Markets and at Sunset Foods in Highland Park, Northbrook, Lake Forest and Libertyville.

The research for this project is funded by the state of Illinois through the Illinois Council on Food and Agriculture Research.

[University of Illinois news release]

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