Meating snack demand

by Bernard Shire
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Laura's Lean Grass Fed Organic Beef Jerky changed its packaging to call out the meat snack's attributes, including the protein content of the product.

Because of the explosive growth in the sales of jerky and meat sticks over the past few years, manufacturers of these products are taking advantage of this increased interest in high-protein snacks. One way they are doing it is by redesigning packaging, making it more attractive and convenient for consumers of these products.

A leader in the movement toward better packaging for these products is Laura’s Lean Jerky, a brand of Meyer Natural Foods, a maker of all-natural, organic and antibiotic-free meat products. The brand has just unveiled a redesigned package for its Laura’s Lean Grass Fed Organic Beef Jerky.

“Americans spend more money on meat snacks than they do on cheese snacks, popcorn or chips,” says Emilie Doron, marketing manager for Meyer Natural Foods. “And it’s a healthier alternative to more traditional salty and fat-laden snacks.” She cites a 2017 Nielsen study showing sales of meat snacks like jerky have increased 3.5 percent over the prior year, while sales of potato chips over that same period have been up only half that amount.

While the Laura’s Lean product remains the same, the new package features modern fonts and bold titles that clearly call out the jerky’s protein content, and that it’s 100 percent grass fed, organic and gluten free, with no added nitrates, nitrites or preservatives. “Our core consumers really care about these things, so it’s important to make them more noticeable. Our package color transition from Kelly green to soft yellow communicates health and warmth, and stands out at retail,” Doron says.

She says product labeling and packaging influences consumers’ snacking decisions, so the new packaging highlights attributes people care about. “Having the descriptors and product indicators more prominent on the bags makes them easier for shoppers to read while walking down the snack aisle,” Doron points out. The bags use a standard polyethylene zipper to ensure product freshness and resealability. While shelf life, resealability and portability remain strong selling points for meat snacks, the packaging uses biodegradable plastics that eliminate its environmental footprint. Merchandising also plays a key role in the new packaging. “With the huge amount of competition in jerky and snacks, our goal is to stand out and capture the attention of the shopper with bright colors and pronounced product attributes,” Doron says.

Small business challenges

For Western’s Smokehouse in Greentop, Missouri, packaging its meat products has become both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is there because Western’s, which was founded in 1978 by Sam Western as a butcher shop and local retail store, has now become a leading processor of meat sticks.

The challenge, according to Kevin Western, Sam’s son who joined the business in 1992 and today runs it with his father, is that the company makes so many different meat sticks. Western’s retail store is still operating, but the company gave up its custom and deer processing, as well as its catering business.

“That’s pretty typical for a small meat processor,” he says, “to offer a lot of products, and there’s no exception when it comes to meat snacks and sticks.” And while Western’s has won awards at both the national and state levels for all its products, including smoked and fresh meat, over the years the company began creating their own smokehouse flavors for jerky, sausage and barbecue sauces.

Sixteen years ago, Western’s Smokehouse began making meat sticks. In 2006, Western’s launched a unique smokehouse meat snack product that’s distributed nationally. Three years ago, Western’s opened and moved into a new meat snack production facility, still in Greentop, population 500. “For our size business, to be successful, you need a niche, and meat snacks are the niche for us,” Western says.

Today they have a catalog of meat snack products. The meat stick lineup – Western’s doesn’t make jerky – contains everything from grass-fed beef, jalapeño, barbecue, buffalo wing flavor, chicken, sweet and sassy with turkey, hickory smoked, pineapple pork, mandarin teriyaki, and bacon varieties including hickory smoked, sweet maple and peppered. Western’s ties the popularity of meat snacks to their search for clean, healthy protein they can eat on the go. Western’s is not a small meat processor anymore – the company has both small and large customers.

“Packaging challenges include justifying the cost of new packaging to get it in place, including changing the size for a rollstock package,” Western says. Other challenges include changing the cutoffs, when moving from a 4-in. meat stick to an 11-in. stick. When the length of the stick is changed, and the shape of the packaging is altered, the dies must be changed as well, he says. But those die changes can be made in 30 minutes, which is fast. The company has created versatility in its packaging – like 215-, 255-, 280-, 320- and 400-mm. cutoffs – all assorted sizes that can be put in the machine.

But not everything is automated – there is still some hand labor involved. “We feed the packaging machines by hand,” Western says. Meat is put in the pockets by hand. While automation is a desirable choice for large companies in the meat processing industry, it creates problems for smaller companies like Western’s. “The big challenge for us with automation is that we make so many varied sizes of meat snacks, with assorted sizes of packaging, so it would be difficult to use,” Western points out. “For large companies making one size of a product, automation works great.”

But an advantage to the packaging Western’s uses is shelf life. “We get 13 months of shelf life, plus our products are processed to be shelf-stable,” he says.

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