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Animal Frontiers - AMSA Perspectives

Importance of variety meat utilization to the meat industry


This article in

  1. Vol. 7 No. 4, p. 25-28
    Published: September 21, 2017

    * Corresponding author(s):
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  1. Dan Schaefer and
  2. Travis Arp *
  1.  Cargill Fresh Meats, Wichita, KS
     US Meat Export Federation, Denver, CO


  • Variety meats add considerable value to the red meat and poultry industries

  • Exports play a key role in variety meat utilization

  • Variety meats are used in a multitude of culinary applications across cultures

Prior to World War II, most variety meats produced in the US were consumed domestically or not harvested from the animal. Prior to large-scale livestock production and slaughter, most variety meats were consumed by those growing up with on-farm slaughter and emphasized whole-animal utilization and consumption. As affluence grew in the US and consumers purchased a larger share of their meat at retail, the desire to consume variety meat declined. However, as industrialization and global trade grew, variety meat exports became more economically important in adding to the net value of an animal. This also led to increased harvesting of variety meats in federally inspected facilities along with preservation and transportation technologies to serve the global market.

In 2016, the US exported nearly 280,000 metric tons of beef variety meats and more than 465,000 metric tons of pork variety meats valued at more than $754 million and $766 million, respectively (Global Trade Atlas, 2017). Today’s best estimates are that nearly all federally inspected variety meats are harvested, and depending on species, up to 60% of the variety meats will be exported. However, specific variety meat products such as beef tongues, beef livers, or pork ears become destined almost exclusively for export markets.

This ultimately becomes a significant value adding proposition for the red meat and poultry industries, as variety meats can garner large premiums in export markets over their value domestically, either for consumption or rendering purposes. For example, chilled US beef tongues can sell for upward of $6 per pound to Japan, which is significantly more than domestic consumers are willing to pay for the same product. Likewise, US packers garner export premiums on a wide range of pork variety meats in China on products ranging from ears and front feet to tails and uteri. The combined premiums for marketing variety meat both internationally and domestically adds considerable value to every animal slaughtered in the US. In Table 1, estimates by the US Meat Export Federation indicate that in 2016, the value of variety meat exports added $37.29 to every beef animal slaughtered in the US; an increase of approximately $10/head over 2012. Pork variety meat exports add $8.45 per head in the US, which comprises about 17% of the value added per head due to exports (Table 1).

View Full Table | Close Full ViewTable 1.

Value added per head due to beef and pork muscle cut and variety meat (VM) exports.

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Cut value ($/head) $189.15 $215.76 $265.04 $239.43 $224.88
VM value ($/head) $27.58 $29.20 $35.32 $38.44 $37.29
Total value ($/head) $216.73 $244.96 $300.36 $277.87 $262.17
VM share (%) 13% 12% 12% 14% 14%
Cut value ($/head) $48.21 $45.79 $53.87 $41.50 $41.75
VM value ($/head) $7.66 $8.16 $8.58 $6.81 $8.45
Total value ($/head) $55.87 $53.95 $62.45 $48.31 $50.20
VM share (%) 14% 15% 14% 14% 17%
All values are USMEF calculations based on USDA Nation Agricultural Statistics Service slaughter data and USDA Foreign Agriculture Service product value data.

Variety meats also play a key role in providing affordable, nutrient-dense protein in developing countries. In areas where affordable protein sources are more difficult to secure, variety meats are more commonly consumed due to their lower cost compared with whole-muscle red meat and poultry. Given the key role that animal protein consumption plays in the cognitive development of children and the health of elderly individuals, the consumption of variety meats can be critical for certain regions of the world.

Aside from the human consumption of variety meats around the world, there are also many applications for variety meats and by-products in the US and around the world. Variety meats have wide applications from being rendered and included in pet food and livestock feed (meat and bone meal) to utilization in pharmacological products.

While it is difficult to sub-classify variety meats because of their diverse uses by different cultural and ethnic groups, variety meats used for human consumption can be very generally categorized by their culinary application. For the purposes of this paper, the authors chose three categories by which to group variety meats: 1) grinding and further processed meats, 2) traditional soup/stew ingredients, and 3) traditional table meats. Some variety meats may fit into one or more of these categories.

Grinding and Further Processed Meats

In the US, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) labeling allows for head meat, weasand, tongue root trim, and heart meat to be used in meat formulations and labeled as beef (USDA, 2005). Heart meat is a recent addition to this list as FSIS rescinded Policy Memo 027 in August of 2016 allowing heart meat to be labeled as beef or pork (9 CFR § 301.2, 2017). Canada has always considered heart as beef in its labeling policies. Common applications for these variety meats are ground beef, hot dogs, cooked sausages, and semi-dry sausage snacks. Grinding meats offer affordable lean sources in formulations, and most of this category is consumed in the domestic market. These products are used as interchangeable substitutes with trimmings of similar lean point values.

In some foreign markets, beef, pork, and poultry variety meats are further processed to produce shelf-stable products that are sold at retail. In some Asian markets, it is common to see packaged, shelf-stable chicken paws, pork tails, or beef tendons that would be consumed similar to packaged jerky or snack stick products in the US. Additionally, in countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, beef and pork hearts are commonly used in a ground meat ball product that are included in soups to add texture and flavor.

In addition to variety meats being used as a raw material for further processing, small intestines from pork and lamb are widely utilized in the casings industry. The North American Natural Casings Association estimates that approximately 80% of small intestines from hogs and 90% of small intestines from sheep are used as raw material for casings production in the US.

Source: © Jiri Hera -


Traditional Soup/Stewed Variety Meat

Variety meats are prized for soups and soup stocks because of their high collagen content. Slow simmering makes the products tender and generates flavorful stock in the process. Many different variety meats are used in this category, including oxtails, various tripe products, and pork stomachs while some Asian cultures will also use small and large intestines for soups bases. Items like beef and pork feet, bones, pork tails, and pork snouts and facemasks (entire skin from the face of the hog) are also used for this culinary application. Recently, there has been significantly increased demand for bone broths for both soups and nutritional supplements in the US.

Geographic consumption varies by product. Oxtails and honeycomb tripe are typically consumed domestically with the majority of oxtail consumption in the northeastern US. Scalded tripe is used for a popular Hispanic soup called menudo with the majority of the consumption in Mexico and the southwestern US. Tripe products are exported across Asian destinations, including Hong Kong, with growing exports to various South East Asia destinations. Small and large intestines are used in both soup and table meat dishes throughout Asia. In China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, products like tripe, intestine, and lesser consumed products like aorta, trachea, and pork uteri are used as soup bases or main ingredients in the popular Chinese dish called Hot Pot; a dish of boiling flavored broth that is used to quickly cook thinly sliced whole-muscle beef, pork, and lamb cuts. According to statistics from the Global Trade Atlas, nearly all pork stomachs, feet, facemasks, tails, and ears from the US are exported to China and Hong Kong for these purposes.

This sub-category would also include high-collagen products like bones, tendons, and feet (beef, pork, and chicken) that are used as the stock or base of soups. Long, slow simmering liberates the collagen from these materials, providing significant protein, flavor, and body to many soups both domestically and internationally. Bone broth has also created a current niche as a protein source.

Traditional Table Meats

Variety meat products that are made up of a larger proportion of muscle commonly are consumed as a table meat product similar to whole-muscle cuts (i.e., tongue, cheek meat, head meat, skirts, and diaphragms). Additionally, many of the organ products, such as livers, hearts, gizzards, and small and large intestines, are also grilled in various ethnic dishes.

Japan is the dominant market for US beef tongue with 2016 imports at 19,000 metric tons and valued at $286 million (Global Trade Atlas, 2017). More than half of Japan’s tongue imports from the US are chilled, and the US leads Japan’s chilled tongue imports, with 73% market share. Pork tongues are sold into Mexico and are a popular grilling item while also being included in various ground products. In Japan, tongues are used in the popular yakiniku barbeque where the tongue is thinly sliced (about 2–3 mm thick) and grilled over an extremely hot charcoal grill at the table for only a few minutes on each side.

Japan also imports beef large and small intestines for use in yakiniku barbeque, in which they are cut into 3- to 5-cm pieces and marinated before being grilled. Beef small intestines are more commonly consumed by the Hispanic population as “tripas” in Mexico and the southern US. Pork small intestines, commonly labeled as chitterlings, are consumed domestically in the southeastern US.

Source: © gkrphoto -


Beef livers are a primary export variety meat to Egypt with the US exporting 76% (62,119 metric tons) to the country in 2016 (Global Trade Atlas, 2017). Livers are a primary protein source in Egypt and are popular due both to being a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine and their relative affordability. Mexico, South Africa, Peru, Angola, Canada, Colombia, Honduras, Chile, and Jamaica are also significant importers of US beef livers. Japan, China, and Mexico are the predominant markets for pork livers. These products are also consumed domestically in limited quantities, particularly in Middle Eastern and Spanish communities. Kidneys are a popular Middle East, Africa, and South American export item for barbequing but also are used in European cuisines like traditional English kidney pie. Approximately 90% of the exported pork livers, hearts, and kidneys are destined for Mexico and are extremely popular grilling items in Hispanic cuisine.

Cheek meat and oxlips are commonly used for shredded beef applications, such as barbacoa and are primarily exported to Mexico and other Latin American destinations. Recently, cheek meat has become popular on menus in the US, being called out on menus as the protein source for items like street tacos, and other Hispanic cuisine.

Other variety meats such as sweetbreads (thymus glands), weasand meat, skirts, hanging tenders, and chicken gizzards are very popular in a range of grilling applications and are consumed widely both domestically and across export markets.

Source: © denio109 -



The utilization of variety meats is critical to the bottom line of the red meat and poultry industries. They provide an opportunity to utilize low-cost raw materials in further processed products and generate additional premiums when sold to export markets that desire the products for use in their culture’s cuisine. This value is compounded when including by-product utilization in animal feed and pharmaceutical products.

As export markets continue to grow, the marketing of variety meats will continue to play a key role in adding value across the red meat supply chain. However, there is still considerable value in variety meats in the domestic market, and as their utilization on restaurant menus increases, they could provide additional marketing opportunities for the US industry.

Dr. Travis Arp is the Director of Market Access and Export Services for the US Meat Export Federation (USMEF), covering the Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Based in Denver, CO, Arp started with USMEF in October 2012. At USMEF, he is responsible for technical-related market access issues and working with USMEF members, USMEF foreign offices, and the US government to improve market access for US companies exporting red meat.

Dan Schaefer is the Vice President of By Products for Cargill Protein Group and is responsible for merchandising and value adding the non-primary products from beef, turkey, and cooking operations. Based in Wichita, KS, Schaefer has been with Cargill for 25 years and has held multiple roles in research and development and commercial management.




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