More than ever before, shoppers are embracing case-ready meats as the norm for making meat purchases, and their trust and acceptance of the quality of case-ready offerings has dramatically risen.

According to the Food Marketing Institute’s Power of Meat study, 26% of people believe case-ready meat is better than in-store cut or packaged meat, and 55% believe it is equally as good.

One of the biggest changes in the case-ready segment over the last year is just the number of items added to the fresh meat case.

Sealed Air, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., started the National Meat Case Study in 2002. It looks at packaging in the fresh meat case in US retail grocery stores. Since that time, case-ready packaging in the fresh meat case has evolved from 40% of fresh meat packages to 85% today.

Stacey Couch, marketing development director of retail and e-commerce for Sealed Air’s Cryovac Brand Food Packaging, noted that as skilled butchers continue to be a challenge for grocery retailers, case-ready has continued to help fill the need.

“Sales are now beyond projection that were originally identified for 2025,” she said. “Customers had a need, and retailers stepped up to fill that need. And, with the more complicated distribution models, the packaging had to address not only working well on a shelf for customers to select, but also to sit in staging areas or ship in boxes.”

Earle Rubin, senior director of retail sales for Northglenn, Colo.-based Niman Ranch, noted the pandemic accelerated the launch process to meet shopper demand for case-ready premium products that require less home-prep handling, particularly with the uptick in future generation shoppers like Millennials and Gen Z.

“Being able to offer greater variety of case-ready options to shoppers in the age of no-touch preferences is critical to long term prosperity,” he said. “The pandemic has also forced supermarkets to expand case-ready offerings as fresh meat service cases have been shut down or parsed back due to labor.”

Due to current labor constraints caused by pandemic-related challenges, many meat manufacturers have seen increased interest from retail customers in converting to a case-ready program. This would reduce labor at grocery stores, while maintaining the high level of quality product consumers expect. It would also allow grocers to concentrate on their service cases to provide differentiated experience for their consumers.

“Convenience is paramount for consumers today, so anything that makes a consumer’s experience in the kitchen better is top of mind for us today,” said WendyJean Bennett, vice president of sales, portioned protein innovations for fresh meats with Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods. “This includes easier prep, authentic inspiration and an enjoyable eating experience. We have seen increases in trial of meal kits, seasoned and marinated, and additional value-add innovation products we have launched.”

The retail demand across all proteins was and remains strong and retailers are turning to case-ready to help fill their meat case.

“We’ve also seen an incredible demand for case-ready products as consumers increasingly use online methods such as click and collect to shop for meat,” Bennett said. “I think we have seen a fundamental shift in how consumers have learned to shop and cook. Consumers have found new ways to enjoy meals together as never before, and people drew on these family/friend small gathering moments to help get them through uncertain times.”


Companies respond

In response to the latest trends, Tyson Foods opened two new dedicated case-ready plants last year. One was a retrofit of an existing facility in Columbia, S.C., and the other is a new state-of-the-art build near Salt Lake City.

“Both plants will help us expand and allow for increased capacity for retail and foodservice customers across the country,” Bennett said. “We know that skilled labor is an ongoing issue for many of our retail customers, so offering solutions for time-consuming items like sausage, diced and thin-sliced meats are key.”

Tyson Foods has also rolled out new case-ready product lines at every price point. This includes branded products like Open Prairie Natural Meats, Chairman’s Reserve Meats and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit Seasoned Spare Ribs, as well as new flavors in its Instant Pot kits.

“These have all performed well with consumers when we look at both trials and repeat purchases,” Bennett said. “We will continue to invest in innovation so that all consumers have access to wholesome, quality protein.”

Kathryn Tuttle, CMO for Harrisonburg, Va.-based Farmer Focus, noted that case-ready products attractively presented on retail shelves can move a portion of the labor from the back of the house at retail into an efficient packaging facility.

“Farmer Focus recently worked with a large natural retail chain to move from bulk supply behind a butcher case to a pre-packaged, mid-store display and the results have been very encouraging for both us and the retailer,” she said.


Protecting the product

From shrink bags to vacuum skin packaging and everything in between, protecting the product for food safety and shelf life continue to be instrumental in how many meat manufacturers approach the business.

“While protecting the product is paramount, sustainable packaging is becoming more critical as we address the global climate crisis,” Couch said. “Sealed Air has pledged to design and advance packaging solutions to be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. As we sprint to that challenge, it entails everything from light-weighting products, to developing non-plastic solutions, to partnering with Advanced Recycling to develop infrastructure to better handle complex flexible films.”

Sarah Findle, director of marketing and communications for Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, noted packaging plays a big role in the success of case-ready meat products.

“Our case-ready fresh pork selection was recently enhanced with vacuum skin packaging that provides benefits to both the consumer and the retailer,” she said. “Less labor, longer shelf life and a cleaner display puts a competitive price point in front of the consumer looking for easy-peel, mess-free packaging in freezer-ready formats.”

Niman Ranch has embraced the case-ready transformation by rolling out state-of-the-art Darfresh Cryovac packaging solutions in its premium line of fresh pork.

“Our Darfresh program offers shoppers a variety of grab & go selections that are ready-to-cook and serve with little raw handling preparation needed,” Rubin said. “The program has enabled our partners to level up on premium offerings rather than just filling cases with everyday conventional products, which creates a differential advantage in their marketplaces. Darfresh packaging extends product shelf-life, a boon for both short-staffed retailers and consumers with larger basket sizes to stock the fridge and reduce store visit frequency.”


Marketing and merchandising tips

If the pandemic taught retailers anything, it’s that the online ordering and pick-up is here to stay. That’s why retailers need a strategy to differentiate themselves from a consumer experience standpoint and ensure a great instore experience.

“A case-ready program can ensure the quality and selection shoppers want, allowing the retailer to focus on differentiating the service case options and instore experience,” Bennett said. “We recommend that retailers lead with the overall features and benefits of the product to the consumers, not just price and taste. For example, talk about preparation methods and provide authentic inspiration to fuel repeat purchases by engaging with the shopper in a fresh new way.”

This is also a great time for suppliers and retailers to capitalize on the popularity of QR codes and use digital marketing to create a seamless omnichannel shopping experience that educates shoppers and helps the retailer stand out from the competition, she said.

Rubin noted that “the future is now” to meet shoppers’ demand by carving out a case-ready section within a store’s fresh meat department cases and drawing attention to it through savvy marketing measures.

“These cases can highlight the quality, features and ease to purchase and prepare a meal at home,” he said.


A look ahead

With the calendar turning to 2022, the case-ready meat category shows no signs of slowing down and many believe that case-ready products are the future of fresh meats.

“We’ve been working for the past several years to build more capacity in this segment and now we are seeing our planning come to fruition with increased consumer demand,” Bennett said. “Case-ready offers a win-win solution for customers and consumers. It can greatly reduce retail shrink and extend the shelf life of fresh meat. Consumers view case-ready products as equal or better quality to the full-service meat case, and the convenience is unmatched for them.”

Plus, as restaurants struggle to staff up, customers are still holding onto their cooking at home habits much more than pre-pandemic, so grocery retailers are continuing to feel the pressure of increased demand.

“All proteins have seen a lift, but trends in value-added packages continues to grow,” Couch said. “Customers cooking at home are looking not only for more variety, but ways to save time when preparing meals at home. Premium products in premium packaging can help differentiate tiers with proteins.”

That’s why case-ready meats are expected to continue to perform strong in 2022 and beyond.