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    FRESH FOOD: Case-ready Meat: Readier than ever

    As assortment rationalization and other forces impose change in the supermarket meat case, case-ready keeps gaining ground, according to the latest national meat case study.

    Case-ready meat's penetration into the marketplace continues to deepen steadily, propelled by the key benefits it offers of fewer out-of-stocks, reduced labor costs, enhanced shelf life, and greater consistency, according to an extensive audit of retail meat departments around the nation.

    The National Meat Case Study 2007 -- jointly sponsored by Cryovac Food Packaging Division of Sealed Air Corp., the Beef Checkoff Program, and the National Pork Board, and benchmarked against similar studies conducted in 2004 and 2002 -- shows case-ready meat products rose to 64 percent of total fresh meat products in 2007, vs. 60 percent three years earlier.

    "The number of case-ready packages continues to gain share in the fresh meat case," notes Jerry Kelly, national coordinator, retail task force for Sealed Air Corp.'s Duncan, S.C.-based Cryovac. "Strong gains were seen in the beef and pork categories, up four percentage points and six percentage points, respectively," says Kelly, citing better in-stock positions in virtually all protein categories, as compared to store-produced product, by 21 percent to 71 percent overall.

    Interestingly, while market forces are demanding a higher degree of convenience with fresh meat products, "non-fresh meat" items -- including processed, sausage, ham, seafood, heat-and-eat, and value-added items -- are actually declining in terms of SKUs in the case, primarily as a result of assortment rationalization, says Kelly.

    Conversely, linear feet devoted to self-service fresh meat gained three percentage points from three years ago (66 percent this year vs. 63 percent in 2004).

    A key finding of the study is that seafood and processed meats each lost two share points of linear feet within the traditional self-service meat case area. The drop in seafood linear feet, according to the study's sponsors, appears to be attributable to SKU rationalization resulting from mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) in the seafood category, which has prompted retailers to feature highest-volume movers procured from easy-to-source supplies.

    As a composite, no big changes were detected in the quantity of packages, pounds, and numbers of SKUs across all protein categories, all of which remained fairly consistent. Ground beef, chicken, and turkey each increased in number of SKUs, while seafood and heat-and-eat SKUs declined to 17.6 percent this year, from 25.1 percent three years ago, and 25.9 percent this year, from the previous 29.1 percent, respectively.

    In terms of full-service meat case linear feet, a steady pattern remained intact, with a 7 percent share vs. the 93 percent ratio of self-service meat cases. Seafood was found to be the dominant category showcased in full-service linear feet, although beef and chicken also gained share in percent of linear feet.

    The average per-package weight was down slightly to two pounds, from 2.1 pounds, with the pound-size dips for fresh pork and turkey most noticeable, while the average number of packages per linear foot also declined slightly to 5.9 this year, vs. 6.6 in the previous meat case study.

    Case-ready penetration as a percent of packages is on the rise, most notably for beef and pork, which gained four points and six points, respectively. Not surprisingly, in-stock positions for case-ready ground beef and pork also saw increases of three and five percentage points, respectively.

    Ground beef remains the dominant red meat case-ready category, comprising two-thirds, or 67 percent, of all meat case packages, while the overwhelming share of case-ready poultry -- 94 percent for chicken and 97 percent for turkey -- remained consistent with the previous study. Case-ready packaging for veal and lamb also gained considerable share in this year's study, up 14 and 13 percentage points, respectively.

    As for specific types of products merchandised in the meat case, enhanced products -- defined as moisture-added product with or without flavor -- decreased two percentage points from the 2004 study. Conversely, flavor-enhanced products, with the exception of chicken, increased among all protein categories, most notably for fresh pork products. (Ground beef recorded no enhanced and flavor-added in the case.)

    "Valued-added pork product nearly doubled its share of packages, with flavor-added pork tenderloins leading the way," notes John Green, director, strategic marketing for the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board. "This is a reflection of the growing consumer demand for convenience flavor, and value -- all the attributes that describe fresh pork."

    Having received a greater share of attention as a segment of the burgeoning natural food movement, fresh meat products with natural claims were up seven points to 29 percent. While chicken once again claimed the highest quantity of natural product packages, at 67 percent, an increase of six percentage points, ground beef and pork captured the largest growth share of meats billed as natural, compared with 2004, with natural ground beef up a hefty 18 percentage points and natural pork gaining six percentage points.

    Organic meats, meanwhile -- tabbed in this year's study at less than 1 percent of total packages -- continue to remain a niche category for most retailers. The higher price of organic meats is an inherent challenge for the category, although retailers still have an opportunity to capture new customers via niche shoppers who typically purchase meat at specialty markets.

    Store brands regained significant ground for The 2007 Meat Case Study, up 11 percentage points to 23 percent of packages, compared with 2004. The presence of store brands was most prominent this year for beef, ground beef, and pork, all of which increased their share of all packages merchandised in meat departments.

    "Beef still has the dominant share of SKUs in the meat case, at 27 percent," says Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The latest study further reveals "that store branding for beef has doubled to 31 percent, from 15 percent in 2004, for whole-muscle cuts, and tripled to 21 percent, from 7 percent in 2004, for ground beef. This is an indication that retailers are using store brands to increase store loyalty and create relationships with their customers," notes Irion.

    On-pack nutrition labeling expanded in each major species across the board, good for a healthy 13-point increase to 57 percent of fresh meat products. On the other hand, there was a downward shift in on-pack cooking information for fresh meat and poultry products, which dropped two percentage points to 32 percent.

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