The year isn't nearly over, yet the U.S. has seen nearly three dozen meat and poultry recalls since Jan. 1, including a recent voluntary recall of 36 million lbs. of ground turkey due to salmonella fears and 60 thousand lbs. of ground beef for deadly E. coli O157:H7. While this unprecedented march of meat mismanagement causes fear, ire and frustration, it also highlights the fact animal protein still remains the center of the plate at most consumers' tables.
So it's no surprise the two fastest growing segments of this market are organic and closely supervised — i.e. kosher and halal — animal protein products. Sales of these segments have maintained double-digit growth even during the economic downturn.
One of the most prominent examples of this trend in recent years is the growing consumer affinity for free-range, organic-raised meat and poultry. Companies attempting to maintain the highest level of quality and standards — vis both sanitation and ethics — in an industry fraught with controversy are beginning to take notice.
The cooperative of responsible ranchers under the umbrella of Niman Ranch (www.nimanranch.com), Alameda, Calif., have shown it is possible to meet the increasing demand for organic and cruelty-free animal products. Through its network of family farmers and ranchers, Niman supports rural communities and the highest animal care practices in the industry in order to provide antibiotic- and hormone-free meat via environmentally sustainable agriculture.
"We know that when you do the 'right' things, you get the right results," says Kelli Wilson, Niman's director of food safety and new product development. "For us, that means our passion for every detail brings you the finest quality meats in the world. The animals are never — ever — given antibiotics or added hormones and are fed vegetarian feed." The cooperative now supplies retailers, the service industry and processors with pork, lamb, poultry and beef that complies with clean-label requirements on all levels.
"Consumers are increasingly selecting foods that are manufactured with the 'less is more' approach — fewer ingredients and a label that is simple to read, including ingredients that one may find in their own home pantry," she continues. "This naturally results in color, texture and taste that is much closer to 'home cooked' in products."
So processors find themselves in a pincer movement as they struggle to bring meat, poultry and seafood products that are both wholesome and affordable to American supermarkets.
"The most important ingredient trend is the use of natural and organic ingredients, without preservatives or chemically altered ingredients to improve shelf-life and texture of products, or using genetically modified products and chemical enhancers," says Edith Mendoza, R&D head for Ramar Foods (www.ramarfoods.com), Pittsburg, Calif. The company makes Filipino & Asian frozen foods.
To fulfill this mission, Ramar Foods removed monosodium glutamate (MSG) from most of its products and uses only natural colorants, such as beet powder. The company also uses soy protein concentrate, textured soy protein and other soy ingredients for fat emulsification, binding and texture functionalities and as a texturizer. This is in addition to soy's more traditional use as a protein filler/enhancer or meat extender.
The single most important aspect of animal protein (and key to successful analogs of same) is that of umami, the so-called "fifth flavor" sense described as "meatiness." To keep and enhance that sense, processors typically focus on sodium, key to the tongue's ability to translate that flavor into biochemical satisfaction. Just in the past 2-3 months, sodium is breaking through decades of misinformation and misconstrued research about negative health impacts on healthy people (see Salt Pinches Back). But sodium and MSG still are less desired ingredients for many consumers right now.