Meat and Poultry Still at the Heart of Protein Craze

Plants may provide analogues or protein of their own, but America still loves its meat.

By Food Processing Staff

While plant-based meat alternatives are becoming popular and "cultured" or lab-grown meat looms, America is producing more meat – the old-fashioned, animal-based kind -- than ever. Farmers and meat packers generated a record 100 billion lb. of red meat and poultry in 2017, USDA estimates. And a recent report in the Wall Street Journal indicates they're gearing up for an even bigger year in 2018, thanks to a stronger economy.

Tyson TasteMakersUSDA thinks Americans will consume close to 222.8 lb. per capita. Big meat companies like Tyson Foods and JBS USA are building new plants expected to push U.S. meat production up 3.8 percent this year − the biggest increase in more than 20 years, the Journal reports.

The expanding production is being supported by lower animal feed costs, Rabobank says. In fact, cheap grain may be fueling a beef and poultry boom.

Fueling an export boom, too. Taken separately, beef (at just over $6 billion in 2013), pork ($6 billion) and poultry ($5.5 billion) are this country's third, fourth and sixth largest exports. Combined, they are far and away in the lead. That boom go bust, however, if the Trump administration gets drawn into trade wars with other nations.

The U.S. meat snack segment alone was valued at $2.8 billion last year by Nielsen, and growth rates for beef jerky and other portable protein-rich snacks outstripped conventional savory snacks globally. U.S. meat snack sales are up by 7 percent, assesses Ireland's Research and Markets. The analysts predict European meat snack sales, still in their nascent stage, to reach at least $4.59 billion by 2025.

This popularity is reflected in numerous new product launches. New Jack Link's items hitting shelves include Lorissa's Kitchen Beef Sticks, made from 100 percent grass-fed beef, and Jack Link's 100 percent beef Steak Strips, with 8g of protein and 70 calories each. Golden Island (now owned by Tyson) favors exotic, ethnic blends: Korean barbecue, kung pao and sriracha are among its offerings. Krave (bought by Hershey in 2015) has segued from jerky to meat bars to meat sticks. In addition to jerky and sticks, Oberto (in the process of being acquired by Premium Brands) is slipping some of its meats into protein-heavy trail mixes. Chef's Cut Real Jerky combines its meat with cheese.

Products in the meat/poultry/fish department of most supermarkets are second in sales after dry grocery foods, representing 13.77 percent of the total store sales, says the Food Marketing Institute. Beef alternatives and blended burgers are popular, the latter combining veggies with real beef; but a lot of consumers follow high-protein/low-carb diets like Paleo and Ketogenic, which focus heavily on meat portions.

Talking turkey … and brisket and sirloin

Mighty Spark Food (mightysparkfood.com) is a new line of meat products launching this month. The fresh, ready-to-cook line claims to be hand-crafted, selected for the modern consumer and "sparked" with bold flavors. The turkey patties feature jalapeno and queso fresco, while the beef patties are made of sirloin, brisket and short rib. The breakfast links contain bacon, egg and cheese and the diced chicken is marinated in soy sauce, sake and ginger.

The company has been in the retail market since 2013 with products under the Man Cave Craft Eats label, which emphasized quality over quantity. The owners realized they had the opportunity to go bigger in the market than Man Cave, explains says Nick Beste, founder and CEO, and saw a chance to appeal to wider group of consumers looking for a contemporary, on-trend, premium brand of meats.

Mighty Spark accentuates healthy, low-calorie and enjoyable, Beste says, and its product developers use both conventional and non-conventional methods to develop detail-minded items with the flair of a restaurant, but in new categories. The chicken snack stick line, for example, includes atypical flavor combinations like Honey Jalapeno Chicken and Cranberry Ginger Chicken. Other items include Chicken Power Patties, which cater to flexitarians with a formula of half meat/half vegetables. Mighty Spark's product developers have so far generated at least 40 items ready for the market.

U.S. turkey flocks certainly recovered from the avian flu outbreak in 2015 that led to the demise of millions of birds. Now supply is inflated, pushing turkey prices to some of the lowest levels in nearly a decade. But there's plenty of product development under way finding new applications for this commodity.

Godshall's Quality Meats (godshalls.com), an international provisioner of branded and private-label products, recently launched fully cooked, "natural" wood-smoked turkey bacon. "We didn't accept that turkey bacon was an inferior-tasting product and developed a recipe customers tell us is the turkey bacon that pork bacon consumers love," explains COO Ron Godshall. "We decided not to follow the orthodoxy of splitting off an all-natural brand at a much higher price point."

JENNIE O Uncured Turkey Breast FranksJennie-O Turkey Store, a Hormel Fresh Foods subsidiary, has introduced 17 new products, including "more wholesome twists on hot dogs, bacon and taco meat." Jennie-O Uncured Turkey Breast Franks and Uncured Turkey Franks have 50 percent less fat than beef franks, the company reports, and offer more flavor profiles. The franks are also free from artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, nitrites and nitrates.

Consumers also want diverse, global flavors, so the brand is adding seasoned turkey sausage in Taco, Italian and Chorizo flavors as well as turkey burgers in Bacon and Cheddar varieties. The company has learned consumers also want breakfast any time of day, so is answering that call with Jennie-O Blueberry Turkey Bacon and Jalapeño Bacon. Each promises a delicious sensory experience with 60 percent less fat than conventional bacon products.

Tyson (www.tyson.com) has said that by June, all of its retail chicken products will be raised without the use of antibiotics. That same month Tyson will add ground chicken to its product lines. "Our culinary team is creating all kinds of inspiring recipes, from chicken meatballs to chicken sliders," says Sally Grimes, Tyson's group president of prepared foods.

And like Hormel, Tyson is upping its hot dog game. In March its Ball Park brand debuted what it calls Prime, made with only USDA prime beef. Acquiring AdvancePierre Foods Holdings last year is prompting Tyson to explore other meat-based product developments, such as meat snacks, with assistance from the Golden Island jerky unit – which was acquired by Hillshire Brands just before Tyson bought Hillshire.

Manufacturing techniques increase value

Fresh meat and poultry still enjoy premium status in the center of America’s dinner plates, but fresh protein is a commodity product with narrow margins. To increase revenues, further processing is necessary, and meat and poultry companies increasingly are investing in technology that enables them to command higher wholesale prices.

Boosting yield through mechanical injection is one of the surest routes to higher margins. USDA estimates 2.7 billion lbs. of beef a year, slightly more than 10 percent of the total sold at retail, is mechanically tenderized, turning 1 lb. low-value cuts into 1.2 lb. or more of value-added product. Whether or not the process includes vacuum tumbling, it begins with hollow needles penetrating the meat’s muscle and injecting water, brine, seasonings or other flavor enhancers.

The problem, according to Tom Gillette, a Burley, Idaho, civil engineer, is the potential for cross contamination and broken needles in the meat. Additionally, the holes created by the needles provide a channel for the injected fluid to leak out. Half or more of the added flavorings become purge, he estimates.

In 1991, Gillette began toying with the concept of high-pressure injection as an alternative to needles. The pumps, nozzles and other components needed to fabricate such a system were too big, too expensive or both, and the concept languished. When he revisited the idea in 2015, however, component costs had fallen to a point that justified investment.

“We went full force,” he recalls, building a test center in Burley and conducting experiments and trials with different cuts and species. By varying the pressure of the fluid stream as it exited the spray nozzles from 500-2300 psi, engineers at S2I Stream Solutions Inc. (s2iusa.com) found they could boost the weight of the target protein as much as 50 percent. Because nozzles are above and below the belt, penetration up to 6 inches is possible.

The opening left by the pressurized injection is much smaller than a needle aperture, notes Gillette. Tests have shown purge as low as 1.5-2 percent after 5 minutes. Instead, fluid disperses into the muscle for improved suspension. In a comparison trial with a needle injection machine, S2I’s machine consumed five large totes of fluid compared to seven totes with needles.

A clean-in-place system with a 30-min. cleaning cycle cleans and sanitizes the enclosed components, similar to the time needed for tool-less disassembly and cleaning of the belt and other exterior components. Other injectors require 2-3 hours of downtime, maintains Gillette, who serves as S2I’s sales manager (a son is president). The business is part of Gillette Sharp Corp., a holding company for multiple enterprises the senior Gillette has launched or been involved in.

The first industrial-scale machine went into production last year in North America, followed by a South American installation “and now just everywhere,” he says. “This is a worldwide application. We have a SIM card in the machine to troubleshoot remotely.” Paired with a remote camera, it enables technicians in Burley to monitor system performance anywhere in the world.

While stream injection delivers hard benefits, controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) falls mostly into the soft-benefits category. More is involved than animal welfare, however: Shackling electrically stunned chickens ranks as one of the worst jobs in food processing, and CAS delivers a night-to-day change.

Perdue Farms is the latest poultry processor to attest to that. The company implemented a CAS system at its Milford, Md., organic chicken plant at Thanksgiving time, according to staff veterinarian Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production. The company had evaluated CAS systems and similar systems used by a handful of poultry processors worldwide before settling on a system that delivers escalating levels of carbon dioxide and decreasing concentrations of oxygen, lowering stress as the birds experience loss of posture and become insensible.

CO2 stunning has been used sporadically in hog and turkey operations — Perdue has systems in place for both species — for 20 years. It’s particularly helpful with hogs, which sometimes excrete enzymes that discolor meat during slaughter. Stewart-Brown reports some quality improvements in bird meat with CAS, but the biggest beneficiaries may be workers who otherwise toil in darkened, dusty rooms, shackling birds that sometimes scratch and peck when touched by people.

“That job has never been the favorite job in a harvest facility,” Stewart-Brown understates, “but it is now a good job. The room is well lit, it’s clean, and they play music.” Turnover has plunged in Milford.

OK Foods in Fort Smith, Ark., deployed a variant technology known as low atmosphere stunning seven years ago, gradually lowering chamber pressure to about 5 psi to ease the transition to death. The system drew the ire of some animal welfare activists, but the benefits to workers were comparable to CAS.

Nine additional Perdue slaughter facilities are candidates for CAS, though the next system won’t come on line until 2019 at the earliest. The price tag is hefty: the Milford installation topped $15 million in capital investment.

There are separate stun lines for the plant’s two lines, which handle a combined 200,000-250,000 live birds a day. Other elements include a lairage area where arriving birds spend a couple of hours in a temperature-controlled, de-stressing room. Specialized farm transport crates are being deployed, and a sanitation system for the trailers and modules is in place. When all components are in place, live birds will never be touched after they leave the farm.

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