The revolution of case-ready products has led to an evolution in packaging advances years later.

When case-ready fresh meats first shook up retail meat merchandising in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some were wondering if the butcher and back room were soon to be things of the past. Flash-forward to early 2016, when many supermarket meat departments include a service counter staffed by butchers and meat experts as well as a self-serve case filled with traditional tray and overwrap formats in addition to pre-packaged cuts of beef, pork, lamb, veal and poultry in a variety of styles. 

According to Huston Keith, packaging expert and principal for Keymark Associates in Marietta, Ga., the emergence of case-ready items has altered the selling and buying of fresh meat, but it didn’t turn out to be an all-or-nothing proposition. 

“The (case-ready) area seems to be growing, but there are not big jumps in usage like you saw several years ago when Walmart got into it big time,” he notes. 

Reflecting trends in the industry, some processors, including mid-size and smaller operations, are adding case-ready programs while larger companies are gradually expanding their existing case-ready operations. For example, the Tyson Fresh Meats subsidiary of Tyson Foods Inc. recently added new lines for case-ready pork chops and roasts in its dedicated plant in Council Bluffs, Iowa. JBS USA, Greeley, Colo., is now managing and operating an Alex Lee case-ready plant in Lenoir, NC, that was originally built by Vantage Foods. 

The slow-but-steady growth of case-ready fresh meats and the greater variety offered in the retail meat department allows for processors, retailers and consumers to make decisions on product mix based on their varying needs and demands. Anne-Marie Roerink, principal at 210 Analytics LLC in San Antonio (which conducts the annual Power of Meat study presented at the Annual Meat Conference), says many factors go into purchase decisions in the meat department, as in other parts of the store. 

“Because of the consistent quality and convenience of shopping the meat case, we see the percentage of total meat purchases being selected at the case growing along with the number of shoppers who exclusively purchase from the case,” she says. “The service counter has morphed into a destination for special occasions, a specialty cut or a special amount.” 

In fact, when analyzing the open-ended responses on when shoppers use the service counter, Roerink found that more than 40 percent of the answers contain the word “special.” 

“In other words, the case far exceeds shoppers hunting for better value or being in and out of the store quickly. It’s become the destination for all routine purchases,” she adds. 

Likewise, those who provide case-ready meat products say that packaging format works well for some cuts and types of products compared to others. In 2015, for example, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef LLC in Arkansas City, Kan., launched a new case-ready program for its premium Black Angus Beef and all-natural Duroc pork in a vacuum-sealed package that offers a 28-day shelf life. 

“We have found that case-ready works particularly well for our non-traditional beef programs like our antibiotic-free beef (ABF) and our non-genetically modified beef products,” says Jim Rogers, vice president of sales and marketing. “This offers the retailer the ability to have an ABF or non-genetically modified beef program with limited shrink risk. These sets offer consumers who are typically shopping for their protein needs at a natural foods store the ability to get what they want in their conventional supermarket.”

Bell & Evans presents some chicken products in vacuum-sealed packages with film and a PET tray.

Organic and natural products tend to do well as part of case-ready, branded programs. 

“We’re seeing small increases in vacuum packaging, certainly for specialty items like organic meats,” reports packaging consultant Keith, who notes that issues with product color related to vacuum packaging for red meat aren’t as big of a deal with those specialty buyers. 

“Vacuum packaging allows for additional shelf life, but the consumer of that type of product is also probably a little more dedicated to it and is willing to give up some of that color,” he adds. 

Earth-friendly attributes

Some brands tout the sustainability aspect of their case-ready offerings of organic or natural fresh meats. Bell & Evans in Fredericksburg, Pa., for example, presents its organic boneless skinless chicken breasts in a vacuum-sealed package with film and a PET tray. That package is also billed as freezer safe and is made from 50 percent recycled material. 

Some retailers are promoting the earth-friendly attributes of their store brand packages of fresh meat. Weis Markets, based in Sunbury, Pa., uses a package called Clearly Clean, made from a polyester recyclable tray with a barrier film laminated to one side. 

In addition to natural and organic products, case-ready packaging lends itself to other types of fresh meat and poultry products. 

“The increase in case-ready and, specifically, vacuum packaging have opened new doors for merchandising additional cuts that would have historically been avoided because of both shrink and cutting complexity,” notes Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) in Centennial, Colo. 

For branded case-ready products – including traditional products as well as organic, natural or otherwise value-added items – the package goes beyond the important function of ensuring quality, safety and integrity. To that end, the package is also a billboard, providing information and conveying the look and message of the brand. 

“In general, package designs are becoming cleaner and more attractive and really focus on attributes that people care about, like grass fed. There are also some great examples of including recipes, QR bar codes for more information and photos of the finished product,” Roerink reports.

Creekstone Farms' case-ready package promotes product attributes through labeling on the front and back of the package.

Processors are taking advantage of labels in different ways. Spokeswoman Christine Tanner says the Creekstone Farms case-ready package lends itself to promoting program and product attributes through labeling on the front and back of the package. “We also use back of the packaging for required nutritional information and safe-handling instructions. This provides the ability of front labels that focus on product attributes,” she explains. 

Quality and case-ready

As the variety of case-ready packaging increases at the retail level, consumer attitudes about such products are also changing with the times. 

“We have been tracking awareness and favorability of case-ready meat since 2008, and there has been a steady rise in the quality perception of case-ready,” reports Roerink, noting that 74 percent of shoppers believe case-ready is as good as or better than meat cut and packaged in the store. 

That said, there is room for improvement, she adds. 

“But as any area and product in the store, customer expectations do call for improvements in cleanliness, convenience and consumer-driven solutions,” Roerink notes. 

One of those consumer-driven solutions is package size. “With the rising number of single households in the US, we see a lot of demand for smaller package sizes. As such, the multi-packs that are pre-portioned are quite popular,” she reports. 

Other solutions include leak-proof packaging, easy freezability and extended home refrigerator storage. 

“I think there is a real opportunity for the meat industry to call out some of these benefits so packaging innovation in case-ready can help drive the concept,” Roerink says.