Would you pay more for a good-tasting cut of beef that was lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than the beef you usually buy?
Or would you still steer away from lean red meat because you believe only fat can give meat flavor?
Smart Beef of Owings Mills has joined a growing number of companies nationwide -- from McDonald's McLean hamburgers to GFI America's SmartMeat -- that are hoping to convince customers that lean beef doesn't have to be lackluster.
But first Smart Beef may have to convince government experts and researchers that its claims are true. Federal officials have not reviewed the nutrition data and some beef researchers question the low cholesterol claims.
The company is test marketing boneless cuts -- from ground beef to filet mignon -- in 16 local Farm Fresh supermarkets to determine if there's enough interest to go national. Prices are slightly higher than the typical supermarket beef -- about 40 to 50 cents more a pound.
Despite the higher price, consumer reaction has been good so far, according to John Schnee, meat manager at the Farm Fresh on Hamilton Avenue.
"I sell it as fast as I get it out in the meat counter," he says. "At first sales were kind of slow, but now [customers] are getting used to it and asking for it."
You pay more but you get a more healthful product with less fat, cholesterol and calories than regular beef, according to Ailene Waranch, Smart Beef president. She is the daughter of Nathan Mash, who founded this company as well as the Mash ham company. He is now retired.
"We say there is no such thing as a fat-free animal," she says. "You have to put something in, take something out or do as we do -- raise it a little bit differently.
"Our beef animals [bulls] are not castrated. They have no hormones or steroids added. No antibiotics are put in their feed for enhancement of growth. The animals are allowed to roam freely on a ranch; they aren't sedentary. We use a slight variation in their feed and they go to market younger and lighter in weight."
All beef is somewhat leaner these days than it was 20 years ago, mainly because butchers are trimming the outside fat more. What typically was a 1/2 -inch of fat around the outside of the beef cut is now less than 1/8 -inch. So how much leaner is Smart Beef than regular beef?
Company figures, which have not been reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claim that Smart Beef's ground product has half the fat of typical extra lean ground beef and 84 fewer calories. For example, 3 1/2 ounces of Smart Beef contains 150 calories, 7 percent fat and 48 mg. of cholesterol compared to 234 calories, 17 percent fat and 69 mg. of cholesterol in the extra lean competition.
Meat experts agree it's possible to get a leaner product that tastes good from Smart Beef's methods, but they can't understand the cholesterol claims. In fact, USDA's comparisons of today's leaner beef with beef five years ago showed that today's leaner beef has fewer calories and less fat, but cholesterol remains the same.
"I am not aware of anything that will reduce the cholesterol in beef," says Barbara Anderson of USDA's Nutrition Monitoring Division. "If you select the right animals, you can get lower fat content."
Likewise, Jeff W. Savell, a meat expert from Texas A&M; University who does beef nutrient surveys for the USDA, says the 48 mg. of cholesterol sounds way too low.
"It is easy to reduce fat and not so easy to reduce cholesterol," he says. "There is no evidence that young bulls have less cholesterol than steers. It's better to leave the cholesterol issue alone. Fat is the major concern today."
But he is even more troubled about Smart Beef's comparisons with chicken. The company's promotional information says Smart Beef is 25 percent lower in cholesterol than "light meat" chicken with "skin." Mr. Savell cried fowl on the comparison, particularly since many health-conscious consumers are removing the chicken skin these days.
"The greatest source of cholesterol in chicken is the skin," he says. "I just cringe when I hear these kinds of comparisons that are trying to position themselves against the worst case scenario for poultry. If you can't beat poultry on a level playing field, don't make the comparison at all."
Smart Beef's distinctive red, black and yellow labels claim the beef is 93 percent fat-free. And Ms. Waranch has produced a laboratory report certifying that the cuts range from 6.02 percent fat for the filet mignon to 4.16 percent fat for the round sirloin tip steak, but USDA has not reviewed the data or the testing methods used. The lab report did not provide any information about cholesterol and calories.
Smart Beef is required to get clearance on its nutrition claims, according to Margaret Glavin, deputy administrator for regulatory programs for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Ms. Waranch says she did not know the company needed USDA label approval and says she will contact USDA.
"A lot of small beef companies are doing similar things," says Jayne Hurley, a nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit Washington consumer group. "Whether or not the claims are valid, we just don't know."
And whether Smart Beef will succeed is another unknown.
Since 1979, more than 50 companies have attempted to produce what the industry calls niche-marketed products -- beef under brand names that claim to be lower in cholesterol, fat and calories or produced without hormones or antibiotics. Many ofthem have ended up in bankruptcy court.
For example, Golden Trim, lower-calorie, lower-fat beef cuts that were sold in Safeway supermarkets a couple of years ago, bombed with customers here and elsewhere. The company eventually went out of business.
"It was a failure in our stores, a real flop," says Safeway's Jim Roberts.
The biggest single obstacle to name-brand beef in the past has been price, says Roger Bergland, director of public information for the National Cattlemen's Association in Denver.
"Consumer perception is when beef is trimmed, it's lean," he adds. "All beef is trimmed more these days. They may not see much difference."