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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: No time to chicken out

    Undaunted by difficult times and beef producers' nutritional claims, the poultry industry fights back.

    An ongoing advertising campaign launched by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association comparing the nutritional benefits of lean beef and skinless chicken has poultry producers crying foul. The campaign, funded by America's beef producers, uses government data to illustrate that lean beef compares favorably to skinless chicken breast in terms of fat, yet provides greater amounts of some essential nutrients.

    A series of ads scheduled for the July and September issues of 23 consumer magazines features photos of beef underneath headlines such as: "Lean beef's actually lower in fat than you think. Makes you wonder about eating all that skinless chicken, doesn't it?"

    "We're not saying, 'Don't eat chicken.' We are saying that you can feel good about eating lean beef," says Mark Thomas, the NCBA's v.p. of consumer marketing. "With so much conflicting nutrition information out there, it's time to set the record straight. People love beef. And now, they can enjoy lean beef for its great taste and its nutritional benefits."

    Not surprisingly, the National Chicken Council has some beefs with the ads, contending that they are potentially misleading for consumers seeking to cut down on saturated fat and calories for health reasons. However, the NCC observes that the ads prove an important point in its own favor: In terms of total and saturated fat content, skinless chicken breast is superior to virtually any cut of beef.

    "The ads are misleading because there isn't any cut of beef that can beat chicken breast in terms of low fat," says Richard Lobb, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based NCC. In a fair comparison of the average nutritional values of the leaner cuts listed by the NCBA, Lobb says the products have more than twice the total fat and almost three times the saturated fat of chicken breast: "The comparison made by NCBA is apparently based only on the select grade of beef, which is the leanest and toughest grade usually sold in supermarkets." Furthermore, Lobb says the values given by the NCBA are in most cases lower than those posted on the USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standards Web site, even for the select grade.

    Chicken breast checks in at 141 calories per three-ounce serving, Lobb continues, while the cuts listed by the NCBA average 174 calories. More desirable cuts, such as tenderloin, have around 200 calories per three-ounce serving, he says, adding that in terms of "total nutrition and the role of meat and poultry in a nutritious, healthful diet, chicken is still the best choice."

    Pointing out that some of the items featured in the ads are roasts that take up to two hours to cook, Lobb says, "Today's consumers are busy people, and many do not have time to make pot roast. Chicken is perfect for today's busy lifestyle."

    For that reason, it's no wonder consumption of chicken surpassed beef in 1992 and has exceeded beef ever since, he says, noting that in 2003, Americans are expected to consume nearly 82 pounds of chicken per person, compared with approximately 65 pounds of beef.

    But there's no denying that times have been tough for poultry producers throughout the past 18 months. Well-publicized bans and quotas introduced by Russia, along with avian influenza in 2002 and exotic Newcastle disease in 2003, have led to plant closures and layoffs, Lobb says.

    "We expect that chicken consumption may actually slide back a little bit this year after a pattern of growing virtually every year for the last 25 years," he says. "A lot of product that would have been otherwise shipped overseas stayed in the U.S. and was sold at a knockdown 29 cents per pound price in some places. This year, things are returning more to form."

    Given those kinds of ups and downs, Lobb says the chicken business remains strong in the U.S., and he expects it will continue in light of "the work being done by our member companies who are showing a lot of ingenuity in bringing out new products and finding new ways to sell chicken."

    To that end, processors and retailers alike have been seeking solutions that will allow them to add value to and differentiate their products in a marketplace that will continue to become increasingly sophisticated and segmented.

    Big Y Foods, Inc., which operates 50 supermarkets throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, recently expanded its poultry line with the addition of Smart Chicken, a branded, air-chilled fresh chicken line produced by MBA Poultry of Tecumseh, Neb. and positioned as a safer, better-tasting alternative.

    Big Y's Smart Chicken varieties will include whole chicken, boneless and skinless breasts and thighs, drumsticks, bone-in thighs, wings, leg quarters, and breast tenders. Smart Chicken joins Big Y's existing fresh chicken lines, which include its own brand as well as a full line of Perdue fresh poultry.

    Noting that the poultry line is merchandised as a premium fresh chicken with an emphasis on health, food safety, value, and taste, Scott Ruth, v.p. of meat and specialty departments for Big Y, says: "Since chicken is more popular than ever, we are excited to be the exclusive supermarket retailer in New England to be able to sell Smart Chicken. Our product testings to date have yielded an overwhelmingly positive response."

    Mark Haskins, founder and c.e.o. of Smart Chicken, says he first learned about air chilling while in Western Europe, where the procedure has been the standard system used to process poultry for more than 40 years. During air chilling, the body temperature of each bird is cooled individually by purified air to inhibit bacteria growth. Haskins says the process is superior to the traditional U.S. processing method of immersing birds in a communal ice-water bath, resulting in their exposure to heavy cross-contamination and water retention.

    Safety and consistency

    Claire D'Amour-Daley, spokeswoman for Big Y, says her family's chain has been promoting the attributes of Smart Chicken in its consumer communications vehicles since its introduction in January. The food safety aspects of Smart Chicken, she notes, will also play a prominent role in Big Y's summer barbeque campaign, a perennially important season for retail chicken sales. "We wanted to have the program fully in place so that we'd be ready for our summer barbeque kickoff season," notes D'Amour-Daley.

    Many producers are also developing products to help consumers reduce handling and cleanup. Such is the case with Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms' new "Fresh & Easy" line, says Gudjon Olafsson, retail marketing product manager for the West Coast's largest poultry producer.

    The hand-trimmed, pre-rinsed, ready-to-cook poultry comes in an easy-to-open, resealable bag containing three vacuum-packed pouches so that consumers don't have to spend time rewrapping portions for further storage, says Olafsson.

    Pointing to a recent ACNielsen survey that finds consumers overwhelmingly prefer food products that are simple to prepare and convenient, Olafsson says people are constantly looking for new ways to complete cooking chores faster.

    In its own market research, Foster Farms found that approximately 70 percent of shoppers freeze and store fresh chicken but dislike having to touch the raw meat when rewrapping it for storage.

    Tyson Foods has recently unveiled four varieties of heat-and-serve chicken and turkey medallions in a 20-ounce package. New products, however, represent only a fraction of Tyson's strategy to expand its share of the chicken market with a new fixed-weight scannable poultry line.

    John Lea, v.p. of consumer products, explains, "One of the things that's really becoming an important aspect of case-ready meats is net weight, particularly on the poultry side, and we believe this is the way business will done in the future."

    The reasons, he says, are self-evident in view of the distinct advantages net weight perishables offer both the retailer and the consumer with consistency in prices and supply chain requirements.

    "The net weight poultry products we're rolling out function like any other scannable consumer product that arrives in the warehouse pre-coded both on the case and on the pallet," says Lea, allowing for electronic receiving and ultimately more efficient handling of the products throughout the distribution pipeline.

    Why net weight works

    Accurate promotional pricing is paramount to the advantages Tyson's net weight poultry line offers efficiency-seeking grocers, according to Lea. "Up to now, we've done our best to determine how many packages we want to sell on promotion by guesstimating, which inevitably comes up short or long because we can never guess exactly how many packages we're going to move. With a net weight scannable program, the ability to eliminate out-of-stocks and incorrect prices presents a huge opportunity."

    Ditto for zone pricing, which Lea says is difficult to implement at plant level with random-weight shipments. "Many retailers are focused on optimum assortment by the demographic makeup of individual stores. With net weight scannable, it's not impossible to have a unique price for every store," he says.

    Processed in a newly constructed, fully automated facility in Noel, Mo., the first wave of Tyson's net weight poultry line—which includes whole birds, split breasts, drumsticks, and boneless skinless breasts—has been thus far rolled out to 300 grocery stores.

    Like the foodservice segment, Lea says retail is becoming "more about portions and portion costs than it has been in the past, when we used to think that size wasn't as important to the retail customer as it was to the foodservice operator. We now know that consumers are shopping for consistent-size products and portion sizes for their families, and this is one way we believe we can address not only consistency of size, but also consistency of portion cost."

    Following completion of a second net weight facility scheduled to begin operations in Monroe, N.C. the week of Aug. 15, Lea says Tyson's net weight products will be available in 1,000-plus grocery stores, representing roughly 20 percent of Tyson's fresh chicken business at retail. After that time, Tyson will make a determination to convert four other facilities to net weight operations.

    "We're receiving considerable interest from retailers, and we're starting to get requests faster than we have capacity to fill them. Over time, we believe this will be the way fresh chicken will be sold," Lea says.

    Growing natural/organic segment

    Although the case for Tyson's fixed-weight initiative is indeed promising, so is the outlook for all-natural and organic poultry, say category proponents. Steve Gold, v.p. of marketing for Murray's Chicken, a South Fallsburg, N.Y.-based all-natural, antibiotic-free poultry producer, says while the niche segment has yet to exceed 2 percent of sales in conventional supermarkets, the category is poised for significant growth in view of "people's growing concerns about the use of antibiotics in their meat and poultry.

    "In stores like Fairway and Stew Leonard's, the rate of penetration for natural and organic meats is anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of sales," says Gold, adding that in Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the segment represents 100 percent of sales.

    While Gold readily acknowledges the sizable gap that exists between conventional and natural food stores, "What we've seen over the past year is threefold growth in conventional supermarkets' natural and organic category—not just in produce, but also in meat, poultry, and frozen foods."

    Though not certified organic, Gold says, "our birds are the only 100 percent vegetarian chickens we know of. Even though we believe the organic standards are great, our chickens are raised the same way with the exception of buying certified organic feed, which would probably double the price."

    And though he believes there's a market for organic poultry, Gold says there's also a price point sensitivity threshold, "and the public is just not there yet."

    Reminder to retailers: When you think poultry, think the whole category, which also includes turkey, says Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Turkey Federation.

    "In the meat department, there are a lot of givens that receive space because they're an accepted part of the daily meal rotation. But consumers are looking for new and innovative proteins to put on their table, and even though consumers love to have turkey at Thanksgiving, they are beginning to realize it's something they want to enjoy more often."

    The most popular turkey product continues to be the whole bird, comprising a quarter of all sales. However, says Rosenblatt, many of today's turkey products are ideal for busy consumers who demand products that taste great, are healthful, and are easy to prepare. As a result, several other turkey products are closing in on the whole bird's dominance in the marketplace.

    Ground turkey has experienced the largest sales growth in the last decade, according to Rosenblatt, who notes that pre-cooked turkey products, including deli breast, turkey ham, and turkey bacon, continue to be solid performers.

    Raw products, especially breast cuts like tenderloins and cutlets, also are seeing an increase in sales. The Southern tradition of deep-fried turkeys has gained in popularity in the last few years, she adds, explaining that the cooking method seals the outside with a crisp crust that keeps the interior juicy.

    According to Rosenblatt, "There's always more room for turkey products. The desire is there, but products aren't always available on the shelf, so we think if they had a better presence, we would see them move through the category quickly as the consumer becomes more aware that it's a choice they can add into their meal rotations."

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