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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Links to the future

    As the low-carb/high-protein craze continues, the sausage industry is smoking with new flavors and convenient products to augment continued category growth.

    After years of exclusion from politically correct cuisine, sausage is enjoying a remarkable comeback among home cooks and gourmet chefs alike. With an aroma as familiar--and often as beloved--as pumpkin pie or fresh bread, sausage has finally shed its bad reputation, thanks in large part to the rising number of weight-conscious U.S. consumers who have put their faith in protein-rich/low-carbohydrate regimens.

    Grateful as they are for all the attention now focused on the meat case, however, sausage suppliers have long been prepared for the pendulum to swing back in their favor.

    And swing it has. Bon Appetit magazine recently named sausage one of two top new food trends, and a Mintel International Group Limited 2002 report found refrigerated dinner sausage the fastest-growing category of packaged breakfast and sandwich meats, with 36 percent growth in constant terms between 1997 and 2002.

    Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing with the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board, says the low-carb craze has certainly played a strong role in the segment's growth. But other factors, "including consumers who now see sausage in a variety of new places and who are also much more comfortable using sausage as a convenience item, kind of like ground beef," have also been instrumental, she points out.

    "Our research shows that sausage is a key ingredient in many of today's hottest recipes," Boillot says. "Plus retailers have been looking for variety in different items to merchandise and promote, and the stars have all aligned perfectly to make the category very, very strong."

    New choices

    Year-end figures gleaned from the board's composite base of retailer data found that overall volume increased 3.8 percent in 2002 vs. 2001, according to Boillot, who notes the impressive growth rate in the random-weight sausage category, which swelled by 8.2 percent.

    "We've also found the frequency of retailers featuring sausage up 19 percent in 2002 vs. 2001, which not only tells us the category is moving, but also that retailers have recognized the pull the category now has," Boillot says.

    The segment's continued development, particularly within the dinner sausage market, has been fueled by new packaging, flavor profiles, and products, many of which have come about as a result of more technologically efficient manufacturing processes that have also improved the quality and popularity of existing sausage products, according to Boillot.

    To keep the wheels spinning, the producer-funded organization behind the "Pork. The Other White Meat," campaign is currently in the process of reconfiguring its "Sausage Makes it Sizzle" retail platform, says Boillot, adding that the nation's pork producers have delivered a steady stream of outstanding items to retailers in the past two years, as evidenced by the Consumer's Choice Pork Award winners.

    With more than 250 varieties currently on the market--ranging from the expected bratwurst and kielbasa to the more exotic chorizo and andouille to the most recent vegetarian options--there's a sausage type for every shopper.

    To that end each sausage maker has its own unique recipes, including Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans Farms, whose newest product offers consumers the taste of fresh sausage combined with the convenience of a fully cooked product. Available in original, maple, and light varieties, the links can be warmed in a skillet, or a microwave in a fraction of the time.

    Pointing to recent studies showing that more than half of the consumers who buy sausage use fully cooked products, Nancy Cowen, director of marketing for the company's food products division, says the Bob Evans Express product line "has met or exceeded our original goals, although our conventional fresh sausage is holding its own, as well. The new products really give dieters flavorful options and have been a very good opportunity for us."

    Citing recent ACNielsen information that finds the breakfast meats category up 3.3 percent for the 52-week period ended Nov. 22, Cowen says the category "has seen solid, steady growth that we've been able to capitalize on quite nicely, with very good volume gains."

    In a bid to tap a greater portion of the burgeoning meat market, Hillshire Farm, one of Sara Lee Foods' flagship brands, last fall unveiled its first new logo and package design since 1978.

    Commenting on how consumer needs have changed in 26 years, Debbie Vicchiarelli, v.p. of marketing, says, "We wanted a more contemporary logo and package design to reflect how well Hillshire Farm sausage fits today's lifestyle."

    According to Vicchiarelli, the new logo makes the company's smoked sausages "easier to find and the redesigned packages provide easier meal suggestions." The company's smoked rope, link, and fresh dinner sausages already use the updated labels and packaging, while Lit'l Smokies snacks, ham, and semi-dry and dry sausages will begin sporting the new look and logo in March.

    A relative newcomer to the sausage industry and a strong endorser of new thinking and technology is Uncle Charley's Sausage Co.'s namesake president and founder, Charles Armitage Sr., who established the Vandergrift, Pa.-based company in 1988 after a career in another sector of the industry.

    With an annual growth rate of about 30 percent, Armitage's family-run company offers a full lineup of country, sweet, hot, and extra-hot Italian; bratwurst; and kielbasa. The company also packs smoked pork products and produces private label sausage for select retailers.

    "Our efforts to create custom recipes and high-quality pork sausage products are paying dividends," Armitage says. "While consumer demand is rapidly increasing, we've been careful to build a solid distribution network one market at a time. We're currently expanding beyond western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and northern West Virginia into eastern Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and New York."

    Recognizing the trend toward convenience, Uncle Charley's has introduced a line of sauces and a prepared heat-and-eat sausage meal, which has earned the company a 2003 Scovie Award from Fiery Foods & BBQ magazine. The product is currently distributed through foodservice and will be available shortly in the retail market, Armitage notes.

    Aside from brisk pork sausage sales, the popularity of chicken and turkey sausage products is also on the rise, says Steve Gold, v.p. of marketing for Murray's Chicken, a South Fallsburg, N.Y.-based all-natural, antibiotic-free poultry producer.

    The company recently introduced a new ready-to-cook case-ready chicken sausage line--consisting of hot and sweet Italian, sun-dried tomato, cheese and parsley, and Cajun-style andouille--that Gold says is 75 percent lower in fat than conventional pork sausages and contains none of the residual additives.

    The five-product line follows the successful launch of a single Murray's chicken sausage product less than a year ago, according to Gold. "With very little historical data to go by, we anticipated during our initial forecasting that sales would drop considerably during the colder winter months because people stop barbecuing. But, much to our surprise, that hasn't been the case."

    One of the main reasons for its unexpected popularity, he says, "is that chicken sausage is no longer a specialty but has instead become very acceptable as a mainstay. The low-carb diets are another important reason, because people no longer feel guilty about eating sausage or bacon."

    Murray's products are in distribution east of Chicago, from Maine to Florida, notes Gold, adding that while the number of chicken sausage competitors continues to grow, "we're one of the few antibiotic-free producers whose products are packed under our own brand name with our own chicken."

    Clearwater, Fla.-based Casual Gourmet Foods also produces a premium gourmet chicken sausage and burger line that company officials say not only tastes great, but also has one-tenth the fat content of traditional bratwurst.

    "In just four short years we've placed our products in some of the country's most noteworthy retailers, including Dean & DeLuca, Harry & David, Whole Foods, and Costco," says Ben Rizzo, one of the company's four managing partners.

    Rizzo continues: "Over the past four years sales have increased an amazing 1,454 percent and continue to increase at a strong clip, with 90 percent growth in 2002 over 2001."

    With products available in 38 states across the country, Casual Gourmet's Web site has averaged 95,000 hits per month since last January, according to Rizzo. From just 12 SKUs of chicken sausage in 1999, the company now has five all-natural types of chicken sausage, four turkey sausage varieties, five all-natural skinless turkey sausage items, and six chicken burger products.

    "By using only the leanest cuts of premium chicken and turkey, our line achieves a low-enough point count to be included in the Weight Watchers companion guide while fitting perfectly into today's most popular low-fat and low-carb diets," says Rizzo, noting that all 32 Casual Gourmet items contain 1.5 grams or less of saturated fat.

    Sausage's first cousin, bacon, is also sizzling to new heights as one of the hottest culinary trends. From 1999 to 2000 supermarket bacon sales increased 45 percent, says the National Pork Board's Boillot, noting that aside from attracting the interest of home cooks, bacon has also become a hot restaurant item.

    "There's no question about it--bacon really is the flavor of the moment," says Boillot, pointing to the variety of precooked products that has made it an extremely convenient meal enhancer.

    Interestingly, Boillot credits club stores for paving the way for the greater acceptance of precooked bacon products, because of the bigger pack sizes that are perceived as being a better value from a dollars-per-pound standpoint than smaller supermarket pack sizes.

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