Natural Foods Merchandiser

Meat -It's what's (easy) for dinner

Americans' lives are getting more hectic by the minute. For families with jobs, kids at school, extracurricular activities and sports, there's little time for home-cooked meals.What's a health-focused family to do? The solution may be in your meat case: natural and organic ready-made and convenience meats.

Applegate Farms, based in Bridgewater, N.J., offers organic chicken nuggets and chicken pot pie among its frozen and prepared-food line. Denver-based Maverick Ranch Natural Meats makes numerous oven-ready beef, pork and poultry products. Among them: chicken breasts stuffed with asparagus and cheddar cheese, pork fajitas with bell peppers and onions, and beef pinwheel steak with Swiss cheese, roasted red peppers and spinach.

"Our oven-ready entrée business started five years ago and now is about 35 percent of our total business," says Maverick Ranch Chief Operating Officer and President Rex Moore Jr. "It's grown by leaps and bounds. … We're actually rearranging our plant so we can move more oven-ready products. We can grow 10 to 20 percent or more a year [in this market]. We do 30,000 cases a week in Denver and are planning to open a second plant in Ohio in two years or less."

Koch's Turkey Farms, based in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Tamaqua, recently introduced Lil' Gobblers Turkey Bites, all-natural, breaded turkey white-meat chunks that take just 10 minutes to prepare. The 12-ounce product is just one of several Koch's sells in numerous mid-Atlantic states and online.

"As any parent will tell you, getting children to eat something healthy can be a challenge," Duane Koch, president of Koch's, says in a news release. "With our all-natural Lil' Gobblers Turkey Bites, parents know their kids are getting a healthy meal that tastes great."

Koch's also sells a line of seasoned turkey fillets including Korean sesame, honey ginger, ginger teriyaki and lemon pepper. A third-generation, family-run business since 1953, Koch's is getting a great reaction to its ready-made products, says Barb Koch, Duane's sister and the company's sales manager.

"The response we've noticed from some of the demos we've had at Whole Foods has been very good," Barb Koch says. "The products seem to be very well-received. I think convenience meats is where we plan to concentrate and stay with the fresh organic products. There are not too many products that are healthy to eat and are convenient. Most people are looking for something they can have ready. That's especially what the Whole Foods customers we've talked to seem to want. They want to buy turkey products [that are easy to make], and they want to know that the turkeys have been raised humanely."

Maple Leaf Farms in Milford, Ind., mainly sells duck products from waterfowl raised on a natural, grain-based diet without antibiotics, hormones or other growth promoters. (The Food and Drug Administration prohibits the use of hormones in any poultry.) The company also recently introduced a boneless, roasted-garlic breast and a leg confit. Maple Leaf also sells a 7.5-ounce boneless breast, a 7.5-ounce boneless breast l'orange, 12-ounce leg quarters, a 12-ounce roast half duck with orange sauce and rotisserie breasts and half ducks.

Wellshire Farms in Swedesboro, N.J., sells heat-and-serve Italian-style meatballs under its Colameco line of frozen foods.

Two other companies even offer meatless organic options.

Morningstar Farms sells "chik'n" strips as well as other soy-based products made to taste like steak strips, ground beef and ground sausage. Quorn, made by the U.K.'s Marlow Foods, offers soy-free, meat-free products made from mycoprotein—derived from fungi—including chicken-style nuggets, breaded and "naked" cutlets, meatballs and a turkey roast.

Trinh Le, brand manager for Morningstar Farms, a subsidiary of the Kellogg Co., claims Morningstar "has been the [convenience foods] leader for more than 30 years." Le added that the Battle Creek, Mich., company launched Asian veggie patties and two new varieties (Southwestern style and ginger teriyaki) of the veggie cakes in January. All are sold frozen but can be reheated quickly.

Aside from its ham steaks, Alameda, Calif.-based Niman Ranch does not sell any convenience foods, but CEO Jeff Swain has his eye on the market, noting the popularity of convenient natural products even within the fast-food industry. "You … have some pioneers like Chipotle, where they have really thought about the integrity of the food and where it comes from," Swain says. Chipotle is one of Niman Ranch's biggest customers.

Though Swain wouldn't specify any expansion plans, he says, "We're seeing an explosion in [convenience meats], and we're trying to get an increased penetration in that area."

Niman Ranch is not the only organic producer considering the convenience-foods industry. Dakota Beef, based in Howard, S.D., does not offer any such products yet, but Scott Chavkin, vice president of marketing, says Dakota is "considering a whole lot of products, and that's being evaluated. There are plenty of things we can do. … We own the whole cow, so there are many possibilities. We can't rule anything in or out, provided it fits with our mission of providing premium, organic-beef products."

Some producers may be reluctant to get into convenience meats because of the challenge of maintaining freshness without preservatives. Maverick circumvents this problem by delivering products to retailers two or three times a week. The company is also working on "new technology to increase shelf life," Moore says.

With new solutions and increased consumer demand, don't be surprised if you see a growing number of convenience meats from more producers. The category "really came into its own in 2004 and has been growing about 25 percent annually since then," Swain says. "It started with the inroads of [naturals supermarkets] like Wild Oats, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, and now the mainstream supermarkets are putting an emphasis on [convenient natural and organic foods]. I believe it truly has caught fire."

Greg Henry is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 88,90

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