Shoppers peruse the deli case at a Wegman's grocery store.
Today’s deli departments are increasingly becoming destination spots for shoppers. (photo: Wegmans)

Many consumers view the service deli as homemade, fresh and minimally processed. For others, there’s something special about getting coleslaw scooped into a container and bologna sliced to order. It’s the ability to get just a ¼-lb. of thinly sliced corned beef or taste a slice of extra-aged cheddar to make sure it has the right flavor before you order a half pound of thick slices for that evening’s burger barbecue.

Regardless of opinion or driver, today’s deli departments are increasingly becoming destination spots for shoppers.Operators are growing their offerings and trying to stay on trend with new products and flavors. They are reinventing the physical deli and trying to provide more culinary-inspired foods. (Read this month’s Q&A on flavor and seasoning trends.) Meat and poultry processors are responding with innovative fully cooked meal components, including fully cooked chicken breasts, mini meat loaves and sliced prime rib, all ready to be taken home, warmed and served.

Deli department sales totaled $25.1 billion in the 52-weeks ending July 1, 2017, representing 17 percent of total perishable sales, according to Nielsen Fresh. From 2012 to 2016, total deli dollar sales increased 27 percent and volume grew 21 percent, outpacing the 19 percent growth in total fresh dollar sales and 11 percent growth in volume. (Data courtesy of What’s In Store 2018, from the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association.)

Despite these booming numbers, just 12 percent of shoppers think of regularly visiting the deli as an alternative to cooking dinner, according to The Power of Fresh Prepared/Deli from the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Vriginia. More than half of those polled by Chicago-based Culinary Visions Panel for its The Deli Experience report believe the deli is nothing more than a source for simple catered trays (51 percent) and traditional American foods (52 percent), and that most delis offer the same thing (54 percent). The same report revealed only 45 percent of consumers know their deli has items created by a chef.

The deli is in a unique position to become the destination consumers crave for food and experiences, according to Sharon Olson, executive director of the Culinary Visions Panel. Processors should look at the deli as an opportunity to keep meat and poultry on the dinner table. Convenience and on-trend flavors keep products relevant to today’s busy shoppers.

The deli case at Wegman's grocery store.
Fresh, safe meat and poultry in on-trend flavors is the gateway to shoppers rediscovering the service deli. (photo: Wegmans)

Processors must keep top of mind that everything in the service deli is fully cooked. Further, products intended for the service deli should be formulated in a way that assumes the consumer may not reheat the product to temperatures high enough to kill harmful pathogenic bacteria that are ubiquitous in the deli department.

Two of the greatest potential foodborne microbiological threats areListeria monocytogenesandStaphylococcus aureus. Both can occur in the food handling environment, such as the service deli, which is why good sanitary practices and time-temperature control must be properly managed. Microbes are everywhere and spread quickly, from hands to counters to serving spoons to foods.

Most microorganisms grow fastest at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F. Chilling food properly and ensuring that refrigerators maintain a constant temperature below 40° F is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Remember, this is proper refrigeration through the entire supply chain, from receiving ingredients to when the finished food is purchased by the consumer. The latter, of course, is something completely out of the processor’s or retailer’s control.

Staphylococcusis carried on the human body, with workers’ hands the most direct mode of transfer to food.Staphylococcusthrives in food environments where most other microorganisms cannot survive, such as high-sodium, low-moisture. This microorganism produces a toxin that is heat stable. The toxin can make you sick for a day or two. Death is rare but can occur in the elderly, infants or severely debilitated persons.

Consumption ofL. monocytogenescan result in listeriosis, another potentially fatal foodborne-related disease.Listeriais readily transmitted through ready-to-eat meat and poultry products, namely luncheon meats and cooked sausages, as well the growing number of fully cooked whole muscle meats sold cold in the service deli department.

Similar toStaphylococcus,Listeria resists historical microbial growth inhibitors such as salt and acidity. It also readily grows at refrigerated temperatures; and although freezing temperatures will stop its growth, this hearty bacterium remains viable.

Proper cooking and reheating effectively controlsListeria. The challenge is that ready-to-eat meats do not require further cooking prior to consumption, while many fully cooked whole muscle meats are simply warmed in the microwave, never reaching a high enough temperature to destroy pathogens. Further, withListeria omnipresent in the environment, ready-to-eat meats are very susceptible to contamination, as they are repeatedly exposed to microorganisms during slicing, dicing and meal assembly.

Because the presence ofListeria does not change the taste or smell of the food, it goes undetected. This makes it imperative that manufacturers of these products take all possible precautions to ensure food safety.

On-site chefs, commissary operators and meat and poultry processors should consider including food safety technologies in fully cooked offerings destined for the service deli. There are three categories of microbial management systems: biological, chemical and physical. Historical techniques in these three categories are the use of honey or spices (biological); salt or vinegar (chemical); and drying or smoking (physical). Modern intervention technologies include, respectively, bacteriocins or bacteriophage; organic acids/salts or oxidants; and thermal processing or high-pressure pasteurization.

The chemical category includes antimicrobial agents that are added to the meat or poultry to suppress, inhibit or destroy pathogenic and spoilage microorganisms. These may be added through marinades, seasoning blends and topical rubs. Traditional, highly effective chemical antimicrobials include lactates and propionates, as well as other organic acids and salts. Newer clean-label options include buffered vinegar-based solutions, cultured sugar systems, celery juice powder, cherry juice powder, select spices and essential oils.

Keep in mind that in the service deli, foods are in an open-air environment and exposed to a constant supply of oxygen, which can trigger oxidation reactions that make lipids go rancid and cause color changes. Antioxidants can assist.

One of the most common additions to marinades and seasoning blends is rosemary extract, which is a concentrated source of phenolic compounds that have been shown to retard oxidative rancidity in protein, as well as function as an antimicrobial. It is often used alone or in combination with green tea extract, which is a concentrated source of the antioxidants classified as catechins and an array of other natural chemicals that work synergistically to retard oxidation.

Another popular oxygen scavenger is vitamin E. Specifically, vitamin E classified as mixed tocopherols is best recognized for its ability to prevent lipid oxidation in protein.

Fresh, safe meat and poultry in convenient formats and in on-trend flavors is the gateway to shoppers rediscovering the service deli. These premium foods provide meal solutions for today’s busy consumer.