The recovering economy still seems to be having as much impact on consumer food spending as the focus on healthier food choices. Even though beef, pork and chicken prices have moderated from their highs last year, meat processors are having a difficult time dealing with pricing resistance.
Fresh meat still accounts for 11 percent of store sales; however there are signs at least some consumers are cutting back on meat and are shifting their purchasing behaviors and attitudes. They're eating other foods, using meat more as an ingredient than as the focus of a meal and visiting the fresh meat department less. Nielsen says the compound annual dollar growth rate for fresh meat in the U.S. has inched up only 3 percent over the past five years, mainly due to rising prices.
Consumers are also purchasing less meat during each store visit. Some are getting their protein elsewhere, like Greek yogurt, eggs, nuts and snacks. Others opt for chicken, which is versatile and still an affordable, healthy alternative, although turkeys have been hard-hit by the avian flu outbreak and prices are at record highs. Seafood is healthy but has become quite pricey.
Convenient formats (flavorful marinades already applied and preskewered shish-kabobs, ready for the grill, for example) and pre-portioning are musts, as supermarket shoppers prefer to buy cuts of meat, poultry and other products that take less work and time to prepare.
Roger Lane, marketing manager of savory-North America at Sensient Flavors and Fragrances, Hoffman Estates, Ill., says sweet-and-heat is a big trend in meat, and smoked flavors are becoming more mainstream. "Ethnic flavors are becoming more regionally based. They're no longer simply Asian; there are callouts to specific countries and even regions when looking at flavor," he says. "People are demanding real, authentic, from-the-source flavors and seasonings, and Sensient is working to develop flavors that recreate those flavors in the cleanest way possible."
With strong demand for Indian flavors, vegetable proteins including options like tempeh are also becoming popular, he says, and can be substituted in recipes that call for ground red meat. "We’re also offering organic flavors, both meat and otherwise, because we’re seeing a growing interest in the organic market."
People are still eating plenty of burgers, according to Technomic's Burger Consumer Trend Report, which says 39 percent of the consumers buy burgers from fast-food restaurants and 39 percent make them at home each week. Opportunities exist for burger innovations such as specialty ingredients, toppings and sauces that can improve the value perception. "Utilizing value beef cuts and incorporating non-beef proteins can help lower costs and broaden the range of needs burgers can satisfy," explains Sara Monnette, Technomic vice president.
Complex and international flavors are resonating with consumers, says KaiYen Mai, CEO of Fusion Jerky, a South San Francisco, Calif.-based Asian-style jerky business she founded in 2014. Mai renovated her family's jerky operation, which produced and sold the Hsin Tung Yang jerky brand in Chinese supermarkets for 50 years. "Food trends are becoming more global, and people like flavors that mix different cultural flavors," she says. "People want innovative flavors, which goes back to the idea of having more choices."
Jerky, meat snacks soar
In fact, sales of meat snacks, jerky and other protein-packed foods are booming. NPD Group reports that meat snack consumption jumped by 18 percent in the last five years. Once a convenience store impulse purchase, the savory snacks are being promoted as a good source of protein and are usually portion-controlled. Meat snacks also tend to be low in fat, meeting consumer needs for a perceived health benefit.
Sodium reduction will continue to be on many product developers' to-do lists, as consumers remain concerned about sodium when purchasing processed meats and meat containing seasonings.
"There has been a jerky renaissance," Mai says. "Jerky is a healthy snack in general, but particularly a great protein snack." Fusion Jerky is high in protein, lower in sodium (typically 30-60 percent less than other brands) gluten-free, low in fat and contains no monosodium glutamate.
Mai's plant in Nebraska produces eight varieties of Asian-style jerky using an atypical process that affords a softer, tender result, she claims. The beef, turkey, pork and chicken varieties are combined with flavors such as chipotle lime, chili basil, garlic jalapeno and basil citrus and have about a one-year shelf life. "The shelf life is shorter [than most jerky snacks] because we don't use preservatives, and we have a higher moisture content," she adds.
Early this year, Jack Links, Minong, Wis., bought Unilever's European meat snacks business, which includes the Peperami brand popular in the U.K., and the BiFi brand sold in Germany and other European countries. "Jack Link’s mission is to be the No. 1 provider of branded meat snacks throughout the world,” states CEO Troy Link. "The Unilever deal is an important step in delivering on that mission.”
Feeding your wild side, as the company likes to call it, Jack Link's recently introduced Original Chicken jerky in handy 3.25-oz. bags. Available since June, the shelf-stable snack comprises smoky strips of lean white-meat chicken breast, seasoned with sweet and savory spices and marinated with cracked black pepper. The company says jerky is one of the fastest-growing snack categories in the U.S. and currently does about $2+ billion in sales.
Here's the beef
Earlier this year, Boar's Head, Sarasota, Fla., rolled out five product families of portable meat snacks made without fillers, artificial colors, flavors, trans fat (from partially hydrogenated oils) or gluten. The line ranges from natural jerky to antipasto packs.