Case-ready meats are more popular than ever. In fact, as consumer trust and acceptance of case-ready has increased, the 2022 National Meat Case Study reveals that case-ready is now the norm across all proteins, led by turkey (99%) and chicken (96%). Beef is the most likely to be cut in store, though case-ready has increased to 71% of packages from 66% in 2018.

Consumers continue to seek convenience, and their interest in case ready meats reflects this mindset.

“For instance, case ready meats that are pre-sliced, shaved, diced, cubed, and pre-marinated provide quick dinner solutions to consumers strapped for time,” said Jessica Pianalto, retail marketing manager of case ready at Cargill. “These subcategories have seen growth, and we anticipate that to continue, especially as consumers return to commuting and working from the office.”

Offering the right assortment of case ready meats at the right time is more important than ever, even more so since prior to the pandemic.

“Providing consumers with seasonal cuts, offering a variety of premium celebratory products as well as a variety of lower-cost everyday items, and providing a range of case ready meats in various package sizes at different price points is paramount, given inflation’s impact on the cost of supermarket items,” Pianalto said. “Truly understanding what the consumer needs are at certain times ensures the most success for the category.”

Many consumers came to embrace case ready meats during the pandemic when looking for quick grocery store visits as well as more click-and-collect shopping. These changes in behavior have stuck in 2022.

In a time when labor is a challenge and when costs associated with cutting meats in-store are high, retailers look for suppliers to provide case ready products to offset these obstacles.

Luke LaPerriere, vice president of retail innovations for Perdue Premium Meat Company, shared that case-ready meats have seen an increased presence at store level in 2022, with labor issues driving retailers to move in this direction.

Jim Wallace, Niman Ranch’s senior director of fresh pork, noted case ready is going to continue to see more play from retailers as labor issues hamper the fresh meat case and consumers are educated to look for high-quality, case ready options.

“For Niman Ranch, case ready sales have grown 30-50% depending on the item since 2020,” he said. “Case ready continues to be a heavy focus for us as we look towards the future.

Joel Demro, director of sales, value added meats at Hormel Foods, noted customers continue to show high interest in its case-ready products.

“Like with everyone else in the industry, our supply has been condensed somewhat the past year so we, along with our retail partners, are looking forward to supply improvement in 2023,” he said.

Mark Saylor, senior brand manager at Farmer Focus, noted case-ready meat products have the opportunity to meet the consumer in the grocery aisle, whether through e-commerce or in the store, by prioritizing products with top certifications that provide creative avenues for cooking healthy meals at home.

What’s available

Niman Ranch has doubled its case ready SKUs over the past two years as the company attempts to offer a variety of cuts and packaging options for retailers.

“We’re always willing to consider adding special requests to our lineup to help accommodate our partners’ needs,” Wallace said.

Hormel Foods has offered two forms of case ready meats—tray and multivac—for several years, dealing in ground pork, chops, blade steaks, boneless loins, tenders, boneless sirloin, pork butts, ribs, belly, and even a few offal items.

“We did see stronger demand through the pandemic, but we believe all proteins and forms of packaging saw the same lift during that time,” Demro said. “We have noticed shoppers gravitating to shopping online since the pandemic so there is a stronger focus on portioned protein packages as well as the conventional case ready meat in a tray.”

Cargill offers case ready programs across multiple proteins including beef, turkey, pork, chicken, value-added, and more.

“Leveraging case ready products, specifically large-scale, everyday items such as grinds or stew meat, in a hybrid approach can help stores focus on the more premium or value-added cuts in-store,” Pianalto said. “This approach is seeing tremendous results as of late.”

Marketing tips

Pianalto noted consumers are seeking inspiration and preparation tips to ensure a quality eating experience at home, often trying to replicate a restaurant experience at a more affordable price.

“Given that, stores have opportunities to educate shoppers on how to maximize the right cuts of meat and pair those meats with the right flavors,” she said. “An opportunity to consider when marketing case ready meats is how the meats are merchandised with rest of store ingredients and on-pack callouts listing other products needed to complete the meal. Anything to help provide convenience and inspiration to the shoppers is a win for total store performance.”

For a niche, claims-based brand like Niman Ranch, case ready offers more opportunities for storytelling and highlighting the attributes consumers are looking for like antibiotic-free, crate-free and Certified Humane.

“You can’t tell these stories on a pork chop, but you can when that chop is put in a package,” Wallace said. “This helps drive premium meat sales and differentiate product offerings.”

Demro noted offering consumers “grab and go” case-ready products are a must, as is ensuring the online experience is also shopper friendly and the packaging is ready for fridge and freezer storage.

Saylor sees a growing opportunity for meat suppliers to work with retailers to add value by inspiring consumers to cook at home.

“These opportunities include providing consumers with recipes and product information on flavor profiles,” he said. “Further, we believe there is an opportunity to work with retailers to help educate consumers in better understanding of the various claims-based marketing they encounter throughout the grocery shopping experience.”

Room on the shelf

The fresh meat shelf space has opportunity to expand into more case-ready conversions in order to give shoppers consistent supply, additional variety, and competitive price points. Pianalto sees an opportunity for additional variety to provide meat cuts to better serve the fast-growing population of multicultural consumers.

“Hispanics, for example, represent 48% of multicultural consumers in the United States and they under-index at shopping traditional grocery stores,” she said. “This represents a huge opportunity for grocers to attract and retain the Hispanic shopper through their case-ready shelf set.”

Furthermore, as the Hispanic population continues to grow, so does its impact on the larger cultural cuisine in America. For the first time ever, Hispanic is the favorite ethnic cuisine among younger consumers and is even preferred over Italian dishes. This shift in craving provides a unique opportunity for retailers to educate and inspire mainstream consumers on the use cases of authentic fresh meat products.

Some retailers drive traffic through a fully staffed and talented fresh meat department with a small self-serve case-ready footprint, while other retailers have found success with a less-labor, big footprint, heavy case ready model.

“It really depends on what the shopper/customer desires as well as geographical location and size of market,” Demro said.

Niman Ranch is seeing more shelf space devoted to case ready offerings, with Wallace noting some of the most successful include robust branding and merchandising around destination case ready sets for natural offerings or devoted entirely to the Niman Ranch brand.

LaPerriere noted that 83% of packages in the fresh meat case are case ready, up from 49% in 2002.

“If has become the primary sales driver in the multi-deck case,” he said.

From a food safety standpoint, there are many benefits to opting for case ready meats versus behind-the-counter options.

“For one, case ready meats provide less opportunities for cross-contamination at the store level—perhaps via an employee who forgets to wash their hands or doesn’t clean and sanitize food contact surfaces,” said Alisha Chilianis, account manager, retail food safety at NSF International. “In recent years, we have seen a shift in consumer attitudes toward case ready meats. Many now believe that pre-packaged meats provide the same, if not better, quality and are attracted to the longer shelf life.”