While the instore butcher is still a staple at most supermarkets today, a trend for those in the meat and poultry business is dedicating more room in the department for case-ready meat that is processed and packaged at a central facility and delivered to the store ready to be put directly into the case.

This gives stores the opportunity to offer a greater variety of meats—especially some uncommon ones that might be in demand among a certain ethnic group.

Rick Stein, vice president, fresh foods for the Arlington, Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI), says consumer acceptance of case-ready meats is arguably the catalyst for most trends he’s witnessing in retail. Still, it’s been a slow growth.

“From my experience, getting shoppers acclimated to the purple hue of meat has taken some time, but more and more consumers now understand that this product is just as delicious and lasts longer in the refrigeration in vac-sealed packaging,” he says. “Adding to these consumer perceptions and operational challenges, many retailers believe that having meat cut on premise is perceived by consumers as better quality. I’ve witnessed that over time, more retailers have begun to introduce either some or all case-ready meat in their cases. In turn, consumers are getting more accustomed to it.”

He believes that retailers are moving in this direction more for middle meats (ribeye, strip, etc.)—the cuts that require the most talent from a butcher, as well as more unusual varieties that appeal to different ethnic groups.

“If a retailer is trying to move into more convenience-driven business models, then case-ready middle meats could be a successful strategy,” Stein says.

Leigh Paone, meat category manager for Lakewood, Colorado-based Natural Grocers, says the category is on the rise due to a bigger emphasis on label claims and transparency.

“Customers want cleaner labels and more meaningful claims, like ‘100% grass-fed beef’ or ‘pork raised in deeply bedded pens’ in addition to what they’ve always wanted and come to expect from us, which is no antibiotics, growth promoters or hormones, and humanely raised,” she says. “People are looking for staple products they can trust, which means most people are looking for chicken and beef. They want consistency of supply and consistency of quality and clean labels.”


Getting in the Game

Scott Sechler, owner of Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania-based Bell & Evans, says over the last two years, the company has experienced increased interest in dark meat and other nontraditional, convenience cuts and chicken parts. 

“Bell & Evans excels in this category because we’re innovative without sacrificing quality,” he says. “Consumers don’t want overly processed products—they want quality meat and they want options.”

That has led to very successful product launches of a retail Spatchcock chicken (backbone removed, flattened whole bird); boneless, skin-on whole legs (thigh and drumstick meat); and most recently, its new line of chicken meatballs made from dark meat and skin.

“Consumers love chicken because it’s healthy and versatile, and they are looking for unique options that allow them to get creative with recipes but not spend hours in the kitchen,” he says. “The chicken breast, while still very popular, has become less interesting.”

Ozlem Worpel, senior brand manager for Tyson Fresh Meats, headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas, says the company has focused more on the trend of case-ready beef and pork through developing its dedicated Portioned Protein Innovation team as of late. The team is led by Nate Hodne, senior vice president of PPI at Tyson Fresh Meats, and consists of sales and operations employees based across the nation.

“Tyson Fresh Meats has seen steady growth in the value-added and case-ready categories and formalized the PPI team to meet the growing needs of customers in these categories,” Worpel says. “The primary goal of the PPI team is to bring innovative solutions to customers and consumers, specifically in meeting the growing demand for portioned proteins that provide function and convenience for consumers today.”

The company believes that retailers can capture more sales from the growing ethnic foods market with ready-to-sell, quality products that generate incremental volume in the case-ready, variety meats segment. Among its meat products are tongue, oxtails, intestine-braided marrow gut, feet sliced and cheek meat.

“This option lets you build loyalty and drive sales by carrying the products your customers want,” Worpel says. “Additionally, shoppers are assured freshness from our clear, vacuum-sealed packages which require no repackaging or special handling.”

Todd Keys, director of meat operations at Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania-based Karns Foods, notes the trends that seem to be drawing more customer excitement are unique and value-added meat items in the case-ready varietal meat section.

He cites kabobs, sausage, pre-seasoned or marinated meat, and items that take a small amount of effort and time to prepare as those growing in popularity.

“As the demand for these items have increased we have expanded our varieties,” Keys says. “I have been in the meat business for nearly 20 years. When I started in the business we had roughly five pork sausage flavors. We are now producing over 25 different types of sausage. Some of these are now chicken- or turkey-based sausage and we are now also offering seasonal sausage flavors as well.”

Karns Foods has experienced increased sales every year in this category.

“In my opinion the increase in sales in this area is due to several factors—the high paced daily lives most people live which leads to a need for convenience, more exposure for unique and value added items due to social media, cooking networks on the television, and marketing pushes by companies in the industry all lead to increased demand and sales,” Keys says.

Charlie Bell, manager of meat and seafood sales at ACME Markets in Malvern, Pennsylvania, says 95% of its chicken program is part of its case-ready variety meats strategy. The retailer is also switching over to case-ready lamb and veil in 2020.

“Some people like this because of the convenience, some follow the trend of natural and organic,” he says. “From different surveys I have read, a lot of millennials like these because they know it’s coming from one place and some view it as a more controlled environment.”

While it’s not so much a category that’s increasing in the stores, Bell does expect an uptick in the year ahead with the addition of the new lamb and veil cuts.


Packaging Plays a Part

According to Stein there is a desire from today’s consumer and retailer in extending the shelf life of meat products through vac-sealed packaging, and in some cases, the ability to eliminate waste associated with Styrofoam and soaker pads makes the category even more desirable.

“Based on the category growth, consumers seem to be more accepting of these items in the meat case,” he says.

Bell agrees that it’s about the “eye appeal” of the packaging to the consumer, and that’s what attracts them to the products.

“Younger people like that cleaner product and they gravitate towards them in the meat case,” he says. “That’s leading to more items and that’s leading to an upside overall.”

At Bell & Evans, Sechler notes it used 100% air chill in its processing so the chicken juices aren’t diluted and there’s no water pick-up in the packaging.

“Our industry is finally recognizing that packaging matters too,” he says. “We introduced our leak proof, freezer safe and recyclable trays 10 years ago already. These are details that matter to the customer and add value. Even our chicken livers are very popular because of their nutritional value and leak-proof packaging.”