What's for dinner?

by Keith Nunes
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The retail fresh meat case has evolved during the past 20 years from its commodity-oriented, tray-wrapped foundation into a rainbow of innovation. Where once the case was replete with white foam trays featuring basic cuts of beef, chicken and pork over-wrapped with film, it now features a variety of processor and private label brands as well as types of products. In addition to traditional cuts, consumers may find flavored, marinated, portion-controlled, heat-and-serve, and fully-cooked items. The evolution follows closely to the convenience trend that has swept through the entire food industry.

In 2001, in an effort to track the changes taking place in the retail fresh meat cases of retailers throughout the United States, Cryovac Food Packaging, a division of Sealed Air Corp., Duncan, S.C., the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, Centennial, Colo., and the National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa, commissioned research that formed the basis for the National Meat Case Study (N.M.C.S.). The study’s first results appeared in 2002 and follow-up studies were published in 2004 and, most recently, October 2007.

From a macro perspective, the N.M.C.S. shows an industry in transition. Efforts by meat and poultry processors to meet the varying needs of consumers have led to an unprecedented level of variety in supermarket meat cases throughout the country.

In terms of real estate, the space dedicated to fresh meat (defined as beef, pork, lamb, veal, poultry and "other") in the self-service case went from 63% of the total linear feet in 2004 to 66% in 2007. The remaining space represented 37% and 34%, respectively, of "non-fresh" meat (defined as processed, sausage, ham, seafood, heat-and-serve, value-added and non-meat products).

Jerry M. Kelly, national coordinator for Cryovac’s retail task force, said the increase this year reflects, in many cases, more fresh meats specifically replacing heat-and-serve products and seafood that were more prominent in 2004. Upon closer review of share of linear feet by species, ground beef stayed the same (8%) in 2004 and 2007, while whole muscle beef cuts increased 1% (to 19%), and chicken and turkey each ticked up 1% (to 17% and 5%, respectively). The gain in share in the fresh meat category came at the expense of seafood and "other processed" items in the non-fresh meat category, which each dropped 2%.

One explanation for the loss of space in the seafood category, Mr. Kelly said, may be related to the 2005 country-of-origin labeling regulation requiring retailers of seafood to identify their products’ origin and method of production, and that many retailers have opted to replace the products with less cumbersome proteins such as beef, pork or poultry.

Processors rationalize s.k.u.s

As for the average number of stock-keeping units (s.k.u.s) offered at supermarkets in the fresh meat case, whole muscle beef products, such as steaks and chops, were down slightly as was pork, but ground beef was up and so was chicken, veal and turkey. When looking at the percentage of s.k.u.s, by species, no significant shifts were noted from previous years within the self-serve category.

Whole muscle beef and pork saw a 2% change each from 2004 to 2007. Thirty-four per cent of the s.k.u.s counted in 2007 were whole muscle beef cuts with an additional 10% representing the ground beef category. Pork continued to represent the second-most s.k.u.s in the case (23% in 2007) and chicken in the third-highest position at 20%.

With regard to the s.k.u.s of non-fresh meat products, which included heat-and-serve items, seafood, boneless ham, ham steak and "other" processed product, there was some movement. Between 2004 and 2007, the number of s.k.u.s related to the heat-and-serve category declined from 29% to 26%. Mr. Kelly said the decline may be related to the consolidation that has taken place in the marketplace, and the fact there are now fewer companies in the heat-and-serve segment.

While the average pounds per package of meat and poultry products available has hovered within a tenth of a pound from previous year’s studies, ground beef and pork both declined to 1.7 lbs and 2 lbs, respectively. Chicken also declined slightly to 2.5 lbs per package and more significantly, turkey dropped to 1.7 lbs this year from 2.4 lbs in 2004. Mr. Kelly said the drop may indicate retailers are not featuring larger portions, especially related to turkey.

Where’s the added value?

Researchers also examined the status of enhanced and value-added products in the meat case. Based on the definition of value-added being products having flavor or ingredients added, this category grew to 10% in 2007 from 4% in 2002. Of that 10%, only 2% represented added ingredients with the lion’s share of the products having flavor added only.

Pork led the value-added category with 23% of packages falling into the classification, 22% of which were products having flavor added. However, among the "enhanced" products, most was moisture added and didn’t include any added flavor or ingredients. In keeping with the growing demand for "natural" chicken products with no additives, the percentage of chicken products deemed to be enhanced dropped to 14% of packages in 2007 from 23% in 2004.

Consistent with the trend of consumers’ increasing awareness of health and wellness issues as they relate to diet, the percentage of meat and poultry packages with nutritional labeling topped out in 2007 at 57% after increasing from 34% in 2002 to 44% in 2004. At 77% of packages, ground beef led the pack, in part because the packages allow for information to be included on the products in a uniform manner. Ironically, however, chicken packages carry nutritional information on just 74% of packages despite the fact almost all chicken is case-ready packaged and would lend itself to more nutritional information.

While the study indicates nutritional information has increased, it seemingly has come at the expense of less cooking information on packages, which has declined overall to 32% in 2007 from 37% of packages in 2002.

Perhaps most surprising, especially given the number of E. coli-related recalls linked to ground beef each year, is the decreasing frequency of cooking information on those products. The percentage of packages of ground beef with cooking information has dropped to 18% in 2007 from 34% in 2002. Similarly, whole muscle beef packages carrying cooking information has declined to 32% in 2007 from 43% in 2002. Other species remained fairly consistent with turkey products, at 67%, continuing to lead in the percentage of packages with cooking information.

The decline in some categories may be attributed to other cooking information available to consumers, including point of purchase information, web sites, and a general heightened sense of awareness about cooking practices, Mr. Kelly said.

Is it natural?

The growth in the natural fresh meat category grew, according to the 2007 N.M.C.S., to 29% of packages as did the quantity of organic products, though on a much smaller scale. To qualify, products had to have the word "natural" somewhere on the label or "USDA Organic" for organic products, which incidentally still make up less than 1% of all packages audited. Chicken, at 67% of packages, proved to be the most prevalent natural product, followed by lamb (27%) and ground beef (25%).

Marked increases in the organic category were noted in this year’s study, but on a much smaller scale. By species, the biggest increase in percentage of packages was in chicken (at 1.8%), which more than tripled since the 0.5% reported in 2004.

After dropping in 2004, the prevalence of store branded products has made a comeback. Led by retailers rolling out their own brands of beef in early 2004, store brands surged to 23% in 2007 from 12% in 2004. Supplier brands remained high in 2007 (48%) as the percentage of packages with no brand dropped to 29% in 2007 from 38% in 2004.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 2, 2007, starting on Page 39. Click here to search that archive.

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