DALLAS — Case-ready products make up 83% of retail fresh meat sales, and 76% of all SKUs.

Those numbers will continue to climb, according to a panel of experts in a March 7 session at the Annual Meat Conference.

The rise in case-ready has been steady, according to Stacey Couch of Sealed Air, according to a new study from Sealed Air’s Cryovac food packaging brand.

The category’s share jumped from 49% of all retail meat sales in 2002 to 64% in 2007, 76% in 2015 and 81% in 2018 before reaching its current tally of 83%.

“I don’t think it will ever be 100%,” Couch said, but continuing supply chain issues and the need to have consistent supplies of best-selling products in stock will continue to drive case-ready category growth.

Turkey and chicken continue to be the meats most likely to be sold in case-ready formats. Case-ready accounts for 99% of turkey and 96% of chicken.

Ground beef comes in at 85%, pork at 77% and other beef at 71%.

Within the case-ready category, vacuum-packed leads the way with 32% of sales, followed by PVC wrap (28%), poultry film (18%) tray lid + MAP (13%) and chub (7%).

Twenty years ago, case-ready was focused on what was easiest for the producer, said another participant in the March 7 session, Jamie Dik of Cargill. 

It’s since done a 180.

“Case-ready is now customer-focused,” she said. “It’s grown to where it can now match the strategy of the retailer.”

Among the customer needs packers need to keep pace with, Dik said, are the demand for easy meal solutions, ethnic options, new flavors, restaurant quality at home and value.

Six years ago, retailer Heinen’s made the decision to significantly upgrade its case-ready program, said session participant Catie Cantrell, Heinen’s meat category director. 

A main reason for the change was that Heinen’s was having trouble keeping enough meat cutters employed.

The retailer moved the cutting and packaging to an offsite facility, and in doing so, was able to cut the number of its cutters from 11 to 3 and save 4% in overall labor costs.

Now, Cantrell said, more associates are in the meat department helping customers instead of in the back of the store cutting and wrapping meat.

Other benefits have included less shrink, improved product availability, growth in a wider variety of cuts and the ability to more aggressively and creatively merchandise, which has led to higher margins on many products. 

“Overall it’s been a big win for us, and a real differentiator.”