Burger trends on the cutting edge

by Lynn Petrak
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A more knowledgeable consumer base has spurred hamburger patties and ground beef products that are produced, packaged and marketed with information on how they were made.

KANSAS CITY – For consumers looking to get out of the daily grind, there are a growing number of non-commodity ground beef and hamburger products that whet their appetite for the perennially popular burger and meet their interest in various product attributes and benefits.

It wasn’t that long ago that the retail meat case included only a few case-ready fresh beef patties and branded ground beef and hamburger packages. Today, the retail fresh and frozen meat case – as well as on-line stores – include a growing variety of formed patties and ground beef packages that are a far cry from the white Styrofoam tray with plastic overwrap.

A host of marketplace trends are driving the availability of non-commodity ground beef and hamburger patties. Interest in natural and organic beef, for example, has continued to rise. According to its most recent Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, market research firm Technomic found that three-fourths of consumers are more willing to buy food products described as preservative-free, hormone-free or antibiotic-free.

Grass-fed beef, specifically, is becoming more in demand. According to Allen Williams, a Mississippi-based consultant of branded-meat programs and a partner in Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Joyce Farms, the demand for grass-fed beef has grown about 25% a year for the last 10 years, and grass-fed beef will comprise upwards of 40% of the total beef market within the next decade. At the same time, consumers have also embraced gourmet and artisan food products, a movement that has impacted everything from bread to beer to, yes, beef.

A more knowledgeable consumer base has spurred hamburger patties and ground beef products that are produced, packaged and marketed with information on how they were made – and increasingly, where and by whom. That, too, ties into the clamor for quality as well as the underlying interest in food wholesomeness and safety.

“We’ve been a custom processor for 70 years and have a retail market, so we have a finger on what’s going on," said Laura Sytsma, co-owner of HarvestBox, a co-op-style, boutique mail order business that is part of Byron Center Meats in Byron Center, Mich. "People today want to be connected to where their food is coming from."

PRE Brands sells only 100% grass-fed beef.

Lenny Lebovich, founder and chief executive officer of Chicago-based grass-fed beef company PRE Brands, L.L.C., said he has witnessed the same trend.

“I think consumers are asking more questions about everything they put in their bodies, including as it relates to animal proteins,” Mr. Lebovich said.

Such concurrent trends are shaping the present and future of the ground beef and hamburger patty market, which is a sizable one. In the summertime alone, ground beef accounts for just over half (51%) of retail beef sales, according to data from the Beef Checkoff. When asked what they love about ground beef, consumers polled in a Beef Checkoff survey shared comments including “My family loves ground beef meals,” “Hamburgers are comfort food” and the simple but succinct “I love hamburgers.”

Mr. Lebovich said he agrees with those sentiments.

“Personally, I’m a big fan of burgers," he said. "Every day is a good day for a burger."

Feeding the craving

One area of growth within the non-commodity ground beef and hamburger category is in products from cattle that graze on grasslands.

PRE Brands is one company that offers 100% grass-fed beef, sourced from countries and regions with healthy, nutrient-dense grass. PRE also touts the fact that its beef is produced from animals that are not on feedlots, are cared for with stringent animal welfare and health standards, and are not treated with added antibiotics or hormones.

In addition to steaks, PRE offers three ground beef chub packages and soon will delve into the patty business.

“We’re introducing patties for grilling season, including 85% and 95% lean patties,” Mr. Lebovich said. “There are consumers who simply want convenience, and this is a good fit.”

To support the new patties, PRE is rolling out new promotions for grilling season and highlighting its 100% transparent packaging.

Some of the non-commodity grass-fed ground beef and patties may not be traditional in comparison to the current standard of ground beef sold at retail and food service, but they are traditional in the sense that they hearken back to earlier eras of buying directly from producers. That’s true for HarvestBox, which sells 1-lb. packages of ground beef and 1-lb packages of pre-made patties in its meat bundles sourced from the company’s farmer partner, Seven Sons Family Farms.

“Through Harvest Box, we are working with specific handpicked farms to connect people to the farm," Ms. Sytsma said. "Seven Sons Family Farms is farm run by a husband and wife, their seven sons and some of their families. Customers see real pictures of their animals and products and can e-mail directly to ask the farmer a question."

HarvestBox is a co-op-style, boutique mail order meat business that offers customers meat sourced from family farms.

Ms. Sytsma added that the upcoming grilling season will include an emphasis on the burger meat and patties: “The next campaign is about stocking your fridge for grilling season.”

Other brands of 100% grass-fed ground beef and patties provide more choices for retail and on-line consumers. Examples include offerings from Chicago-based Tallgrass Beef, La Farge, Wis.-based Organic Prairie and Vina, Calif.-based Panorama Grass-Fed Meats.

There are other examples of non-commodity ground beef and patties that are unique because of their composition and the feeding practices. From a composition standpoint, Bronx, N.Y.-based Gold & Masters offers Skinny Burgers (originally known as Cluck ‘n Moo burgers), made from a mix of gluten-free, antibiotic-free and hormone-free, humanely raised chicken and grass-fed beef. According to Gold & Masters, Skinny Burgers have 40% less fat, 25% fewer calories and 33% less saturated fat than grass-fed beef burgers. In addition to pre-formed burger patties, Gold & Masters also offers consumers a Skinny Ground product.

From a cattle-feeding standpoint, a unique type of ground beef/burger product comes from Dwight, Kas.-based Oaties Beef, L.L.C., which, as its name suggests, offers oat-fed beef. Its portfolio includes 1-lb packages of ground beef and packages of 1/3-lb and 1/4-lb patties in 75%, 85% and 95% lean varieties.

Dallas Picolet came up with the idea for oat-fed beef after his son was diagnosed as allergic to red meat in 2006.

“At that time, they were saying to eat a bowl of oatmeal a day as a way to lower cholesterol," Mr. Picolet said. "I said, ‘Well, I’ll try feeding the cattle oats,' and in 2007, I had the product tested at Kansas State University. Sure enough, it was lower in cholesterol than grass- or grain-fed beef – even lower than bison."

Oaties Beef sales continue to climb, he said, both on-line and in the Kansas stores where the beef is sold in a vacuum-style package.

Prime time

Beyond ways that the animal has been fed, there are other emerging product profiles for ground beef and burgers. Arkansas City, Kas.-based Creekstone Farms, for example, recently introduced new packages of Non-GMO Project Verified ground beef, available on-line and in some select stores, in addition to food service operations. Mindful Meats, a West Coast producer in Point Reyes Station, Calif., is another company that offers Non-GMO Project Verified ground beef.

To appeal to discerning consumers looking for a gourmet eating experience, Creekstone Farms also has launched a new U.S.D.A. Prime premium ground beef that is ground from whole muscle trim with no fillers or added ingredients. On-line companies specializing in upscale premium products also market their artisan/gourmet burgers, such as premium ground beef patties from Home Bistro, Inc., and gourmet burgers from Omaha Steaks.

Creekstone Farms launched a new U.S.D.A. Prime premium ground beef that is ground from whole muscle trim with no fillers or added ingredients.

HarvestBox, too, appeals to the quality-minded consumer with its Wagyu ground beef and ground beef patties.

“Repeat consumers have fun with the HarvestBox," Ms. Sytsma said. "They will try grass-fed and next try Wagyu."

Finally, as more consumers light up their grills for grilling season, there are innovations and additions in the freezer as well. BUBBA Burger, Jacksonville, Fla., has added natural and grass-fed burgers to its lineup. Creekstone Farms, for its part, offers Natural Black Angus patties that are 100% vegetarian-fed and raised and grazed in the U.S. and packaged in a resealable bag inside a 2-lb box.

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