Natural Foods Merchandiser
Creative ways to market meat

Creative ways to market meat

Spam: It’s what’s for dinner. That’s the conclusion many people drew after Hormel announced that first-quarter sales of its gelatinous canned meat posted double-digit increases. But beef, pork and chicken aren’t ready to give up their presence on dinner plates just yet. Statistics show that cash-strapped consumers are buying more meat in supermarkets. Sales of natural and organic beef, pork and poultry are reaching Spamtastic heights.

Considering that natural or organic meat can cost 25 percent to 30 percent more than conventional, and about a jillion percent more than Spam, why is it selling so well during these tough economic times?

An organic cut above
Battered by food safety scares, today’s consumers are looking for meat “with more of a story,” says Arion Thiboumery, coordinator of Iowa State University Extension’s Small Meat Processor Working Group. They want local, traceable meat that is preferably natural or organic. Natural and organic ranchers tend to process their meat in small, local facilities, a practice that also promotes food safety. “If you get ground meat from a large plant, it could contain parts from hundreds or even thousands of animals,” Thiboumery says. “From a small plant, it would be just a few animals.”

But even the most safety-conscious shoppers can suffer from sticker shock when they see organic beef tenderloin priced at $24 a pound in their natural foods store. That’s why less-expensive organic or natural products are leading meat sales this year.

“People are shifting their buying habits and buying hamburger rather than steak,” says Mack Graves, CEO of Petaluma, Calif.-based Panorama Meats, which recently inked a deal to sell organic beef from Wyoming’s Arapaho Indian ranch to Whole Foods stores in the Rocky Mountain region. Lower-priced meat cuts also serve as an entry point for consumers who have never tried organic meat, Graves says.

Organic Prairie, the meat division of LaFarge, Wis.-based Organic Valley Family of Farms, also reports a shift in the types of products consumers are buying. Organic Prairie General Manager Tedd Heilmann says that for the first four months of this year, the company’s sales of beef, chicken, turkey and pork increased 20 percent, but “people are trading down to ground turkey, chicken and beef instead of more expensive cuts like pork chops and steaks.” Even lower-priced chicken breasts are losing sales to cheaper products like ground chicken or chicken sausage, Heilmann says.

Get on the case
How do you rustle up better meat sales? Graves, Thiboumery and Heilmann offer the following merchandising tips.

Butchered or packaged? The butchered meat case can be the last bastion of customer service in a grab-and-go world, Graves says. “I see it all the time—60 percent to 70 percent of people want to go to the meat counter and pick their steak. You don’t see people saying, ‘Hey, just give me a couple steaks.’”

Be creative. To avoid waste, some organic and natural meat suppliers will sell stores only the whole animal. Sell the less desirable cuts as stew meat or brochettes. For flank steak, consider rolling it with feta cheese and spinach and marketing it as pinwheel steak. Provide recipes for cuts people are less familiar with, like brisket, short ribs, shanks and roasts. Deli pork shoulder roast can easily become pulled-pork sandwiches.

Know what you’re selling. Whether in the case or packaged, “if you don’t identify the benefits of the product, you’re going to miss the sale,” Graves says. Not only should there be clearly marked tags, but staff also needs to be trained on meat. Ask your supplier for a presentation or educational materials, and then provide your meat-department staff with two to three bullet points per category. For instance, organic, grass-fed meat cooks faster, is high in omega-3s and is lower in saturated fat.

Put the freeze on. Although it has less perceived value than fresh, frozen meat lasts longer—18 to 24 months, compared to 14 to 21 days for fresh. It’s protection against slow inventory programs and gives small or midlevel grocers who don’t want a high level of risk a firm presence in the organic-meat category.

Meat labels

Natural: “A product containing no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed (a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Groups are lobbying the USDA to rewrite the definition, noting that some chicken labeled “natural” is injected with water, salt or seaweed to make it taste better and weigh more.

Free range/cage free: The USDA verifies cage-free laying conditions for hens, but that doesn’t mean the birds must have access to the outdoors.

COOL (Country of Origin Labeling): As of March 16, muscle cuts and ground beef, pork, lamb, goat and chicken sold in the United States must be labeled with the country of origin.

Organic: For livestock and poultry, the USDA stipulates:

    Animals must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation, or no later than the second day of life for poultry.
    Animals must be fed 100 percent USDA organic grain and/or forage diets.
    Growth hormones and/or antibiotics are prohibited.
    All animals must have access to the outdoors. A proposed rule would require cattle six months or older to be on pasture a minimum of 120 days and get at least 30 percent of their dry food from pasture.

Certified Humane: This label administered by Humane Farm Animal Care requires that “animals must be free to do what comes naturally,” meaning a minimum of four hours outside daily for dairy cattle, bedding for pregnant pigs and no slatted or wire flooring for chickens.

Animal Welfare Approved: Administered by the Animal Welfare Institute, this program has superior requirements for weaning and access to the outdoors. It’s limited to animals from family farms, though, which applies to less than 1 percent of all animals slaughtered in the United States each year.

Grass-fed: By USDA definition, animals must be fed only mother’s milk or grass or hay their entire lives and must have access to pasture during the growing season. The rule doesn’t prohibit giving animals antibiotics or growth hormones.


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