One of the most frustrating things about attending industry conventions is it’s near impossible for one person to cover everything being featured. Such was the case for me (again) during the recently held 73rd American Convention of Meat Processors & Suppliers’ Exhibition conducted by the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), held last week at the Crowne Plaza River Centre in beautiful, warm and sunny St. Paul, Minn.

Unable to catch up with Jay Wenther, Ph.D., AAMP executive director, while at the show, I contacted him over the weekend to get his opinions on the highlights of this year’s AAMP convention and he was pleased with the outcome.

“AAMP had a great convention!” he said. “We had 179 establishments represented at the AAMP convention. We had a much larger number of first-time participants to the convention, a record number of products [1,023] entered into the American Cured Meat Championships, which shattered previous totals, and overall it seemed as though everyone enjoyed the educational sessions and product demonstrations.”

Wenther said the prevailing mood of AAMP processors who attended the convention was “very positive and optimistic” regarding their meat businesses. “It seems as though many are focusing on specific product lines to co-pack for other people,” he said. “This includes products such as jerky, snack sticks, smoked sausage, etc. To add to their success, it seems as though most all AAMP members have a section of their business allocated to direct retail sales.”

Anyone Wenther spoke with during the convention regarding retail commented on how profitable the past year has been despite the flagging overall economy. This can be attributed to the continuing “buy local” trend, providing good customer service and having the ability to provide a quality product, Wenther explained.

On a broader issue, Wenther said that the upcoming presidential election is a concern to AAMP members. “Couple that with the looming health-insurance mandate and overall economic conditions and it creates a situation where processors are hesitant to purchase capital equipment or expand their business,” Wenther said. “On the other hand, I know of members who want to expand their business, but are limited by the banks’ unwillingness to provide loans. The potential of an administration change and economic improvement may cause processors to move on business improvements that are currently on hold.”

Wenther said among the many highlights of this year’s AAMP convention, favorable comments were made about the pre-convention workshop held at the Univ. of Minnesota and coordinated by Dr. Ryan Cox. “The educational sessions were structured in such a fashion to incorporate the detailed theoretical side of the topic and the actual application side of the topic,” he added. “We utilized the knowledge of the processors to help relay the information. Processors seemed to really enjoy this structure.”

Friday’s processing demonstrations also went very well and were well attended, Wenther relayed. “Processors had an opportunity to learn a lot from other processors who were willing to share their processing techniques,” he said. “The number of establishments attending the convention was approximately 180. Approximately 28 establishments from that figure were first-time participants to the convention, so exhibitors had an opportunity to meet with quite a few new processors.”

Future challenges for the AAMP membership will remain overall regulatory expectations, Wenther told He said he spent a lot of time talking with convention attendees on the HACCP system validation issue, which “has been a concern since October 2008,” he added.

“While USDA/FSIS has provided the theoretical side of the issue within their guidance document, the guidance lacks clear information on the application and data collection that will meet the unknown regulatory expectations,” he said. “The industry won’t know how difficult this issue will truly be until it is implemented upon them.”

The non-E. coli O157:H7 STECs issue is also a concern, considering the testing methodology, potential cost, access to microbiological laboratories available and lack of scientific supporting documentation for establishment food-safety systems, he added.

Many convention attendees identified opportunities to further increase business by co-packing meat products for more companies, he iterated. “It seems as though continued product development on unique flavor profiles provide great opportunities for AAMP members,” he added. “The retail meat business continues to offer business improvements. For many of them, although they started as a meat retail business — they continue to add other products to their business, such as a bakery section, a cheese section, a wine section and/or a craft beer section.”

AAMP processors who are still harvesting livestock are continuing to be sought out by livestock producers wanting to direct-market their products, Wenther relayed. “Many of these processors are improving the packaging and labeling of their products, which also seems to improve the demand for their services,” he added.

One fact clear to see from the time I arrived at the convention center is AAMP conventions remain a family affair. Spouses and children of all ages — from one newborn baby cradled in her mother’s arms to rambunctious tots scooping up treasures (candy, pens, bags, etc.) at various exhibit booths to quiet teens following their dads around the exhibit floor soaking everything in — all clearly enjoyed themselves.

Toward the end of the show, an AAMP member, who worked for one Wisconsin processor and his teenage son, stopped by the Meat&Poultry exhibit booth. The son silently stood behind his dad while he updated M&P Publisher Dave Crost and me on his business. When I asked his son if he planned to follow in his dad’s footsteps and work in the meat industry, the boy’s face lit up, he smiled and replied shyly, “maybe” while his dad beamed at his son all the while.

Wenther later told me while many of the AAMP members’ children work in their meat businesses now, many others don’t know yet what they want to do as a vocation. “Talking with the parents, many of them seem very open-minded and are not forcing their children into the meat business and they are allowing their children to make that choice for themselves,” he said. “We continue to get a lot of children at the AAMP convention because these independent meat companies are true family businesses.”

Here’s hoping many children of those AAMP members who own their own meat companies join their parents’ businesses after they graduate from high school or college and that they carry on the tradition to someday bring their own children to AAMP conventions in the future.