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    FRESH FOOD: Annual Meat Conference Preview: High-protein diet

    New cuts, natural extensions, new grilling programs, and Hispanic marketing are all on the menu at the Annual Meat Conference.

    Juicy details pertaining to how the latest consumer, business, and marketing trends are affecting meat industry trading partners will comprise a heaping portion of the agenda at the upcoming 2006 Annual Meat Conference (AMC), set to take place March 12 to March 14 at the Gaylord Texas Resort and Conference Center in Dallas.

    Organized and co-sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute and the American Meat Institute -- in conjunction with the American Lamb Board, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Board, and the National Turkey Federation -- the conference has become a traditional rite of spring, and is the only national forum bringing together retailers and suppliers of meat and poultry under one roof.

    The agenda includes educational sessions, local store tours, and a working-lunch Tech Fair. However, the Product Tasting Reception, this time set for Monday evening, March 13, has become the star attraction of the event. With nearly 50 exhibitors sampling and showcasing new products and up-to-the-minute retail initiatives, the high-protein party offers a hearty helping of the latest meat and poultry products in the retail marketplace.

    Checking in

    The retail marketing directors of two of the nation's leading commodity boards -- the National Pork Board (NPB) and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) -- will also be on hand at the conference, to enlighten participants on the latest developments unfolding in their respective checkoff-funded programs.

    Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for NPB, says five areas of focus are headlining the organization's ongoing retail marketing activities for 2006, among them the second-year explanation of The Other White Meat's "Don't Be Blah" campaign.

    Noting the good news on the horizon regarding pork production and opportunities for retailers to promote fresh pork, Boillot says, "Very positive results were seen in 2005, and 2006 will build on that success by again including a national component, as well as targeted efforts in six markets: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, and Sacramento." The campaign's national efforts will include cable TV and an online presence, while the target markets will receive TV, radio, and outdoor advertising messages, she adds.

    Though pork sales are traditionally strongest during the warmer months of April through September, retailers also have opportunities to help drive fresh pork sales during the first quarter, says Boillot. As such, "We're taking a close look at grilling in 2006 and expanding the timing of this traditionally summer activity. There are a lot of opportunities for retailers to feature grilling pork during the fall and winter months, too."

    Pork's strength for the grilling season, she continues, "really revolves around variety and versatility." That variety is manifest in brats, tenderloins, kebabs, chops, ribs, roasts, and burgers. "We will work to showcase that aspect and also to extend the grilling season. One example of that is the winter grilling point of sale that we've developed for cold-season retailers that want to gain some counterseasonal sales with fresh pork."

    The board's tailgating program continues to be highly popular during the fall because of its flexibility: It allows retailers to customize promotions to fit their needs, "whether it's sponsoring a local team or sending consumers to an NFL game," says Boillot. The platform also has a nonfootball component to target tailgating at other sporting events, and even a home version of the pastime. "Tailgating doesn't have to happen in a parking lot at the stadium. It can take place in your backyard when friends are invited over to watch the big game. It's these types of scenarios we'd like to help retailers expand on."

    Hispanic marketing is another key emphasis for the organization's efforts at retail this year. Involved to some degree in Hispanic programs since 2000, the pork board has decided the time is right to update the initiative. Says Boillot, "This segment has changed dramatically in the past five years, so in late 2005 we decided to revisit this program to make sure that our targeting and our messages about pork were on track." After recently hiring a new Dallas-based Hispanic advertising agency, the group spent the first quarter of 2006 conducting focus groups and accessing other research, to refine its target and approach.

    "Our goal is to roll this campaign out at retail during the second quarter, during which time we will be heavily focused on this effort in key Hispanic markets," explains Boillot.

    The pork industry is also getting traction from auto racing, as the primary sponsor for Frank Kimmel's #46 ARCA team this year. The team's car sports a completely new paint scheme showcasing pork, says Boillot. "We will continue to use this platform in key racing markets and tie into retailers. Our show car simulator will make many store visits -- with several grillouts at stores -- as part of these programs and consumer sweepstakes that offer race tickets and pit passes, among others."

    During the educational portion of the Annual Meat Conference, Boillot will join her counterpart from the beef industry, Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the NCBA, for a workshop on merchandising and promoting techniques for the meat department.

    Building on the recent success of the organization's "Beef Value Cuts" program, Irion will describe the new merchandising materials, developed by America's beef producers, that will be especially useful in helping retailers introduce the cuts to their customers.

    The new materials, available in easy-to-read kit form, "will arm grocers with the information they need to determine the cuts that are most appropriate for their product mix and customer base," says Irion. Packed with recipes, preparation instructions, nutrition information, cutting instructions, selling tips specific to each cut, and sampling ideas, five kits complete the set, including one each for Ranch Steaks, Flat Iron Steaks, Petite Tender, Sirloin Tip Side and Sirloin Tip Center Steaks, and Western Griller and Western Tip Steaks.

    When value-cut steaks first entered the retail market in 2001, only 42 stores nationwide carried them, notes Irion. What a difference a few years can make: By 2004, total retail penetration had reached more than 900 stores, while at midyear 2005 the number was nearly 5,000.

    The new steaks from the chuck and round are the result of deliberate changes in cutting techniques to create more consumer-friendly portions, in essence reworking parts of the cow that were formerly sold as larger roasts. The resulting steaks and roasts also offer the consumer many positive benefits, including convenience, affordability, and a more consistently satisfying eating experience, according to Irion.

    The versatile flat iron is "the breakout item" in the value-cut lineup. Irion says the increasingly popular cut has gone full circle from restaurants to retail, largely as a result of its diverse applications, excellent price/value ratio, and outstanding flavor and tenderness. The cut, which can now be found in 20,000 casual and white-tablecloth restaurants, allows for a tender and flavorful steak, second only to the beef tenderloin in tenderness, and offers a delectable, robust flavor, he adds.

    In light of the tremendous momentum in the foodservice industry behind the flat iron steak specifically -- and the entire family of Beef Value Cuts in general -- Irion says the time is right for more retailers to embrace the new value-added line as a competitive advantage.

    New-item launch pad

    Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods is preparing to debut its new Certified Angus Beef brand natural beef product and Star Ranch Natural Angus Beef at the venue. Tyson is just one of some 50 companies that use the Meat Conference as an official launch pad for new products.

    "The CAB brand and Star Ranch Angus Beef have been very successful programs for Tyson, and we're excited to add natural product lines to both," says Noel White, group v.p. of Tyson Fresh Meats. "Consumer demand for natural beef is increasing, and we believe there's an opportunity for us to grow with it. While we have every confidence in our traditional beef products, we also believe in giving our customers a choice."

    The beef products will come from cattle that have never received antibiotics or hormones, and have been given a 100 percent grass and grain diet, says White. The animals will be Black Angus source-verified from birth and fed in "natural" designated feed yards. The Beef Marketing Group, a cooperative of Kansas and Nebraska feed yards, is the first cattle-feeding organization to participate in the initiative, he notes.

    "We believe our efforts to source naturally raised cattle, and following proper animal-handling and -feeding protocols, will provide consumers with another high-quality protein choice," says White. "In fact, we believe this program will raise the standard for performance in the production and marketing of fresh natural beef."

    Tyson anticipates that the natural programs will complement the traditional offerings in many conventional retail meat cases, and also ought to meet the demands of natural food retailers, adds White.

    Additionally, Tyson will showcase its new Hispanic line of fresh, thin-sliced Rebanado Delgado beef products that will make it convenient for the growing number of consumers, food retailers, and foodservice outlets that are demanding presliced meat for Latin-style meals.

    The products -- made from such beef cuts as the chuck, round, sirloin, inside skirt, and sirloin flap mea -- come in four-, six- and eight-millimeter slices. The nonbranded program features Spanish and English product labels placed on the outside of the box and on the individual packages.

    The new line also has potential beyond the targeted Hispanic market, observes White, pointing to thin-sliced beef's suitability for such products as cheese steaks, salads, and Asian-type dishes.

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