Is there such a thing as a mature meat or poultry category that cannot continue growing? The answer is no, but any category can become stale....if packers and processors allow this to happen.

Take bacon, for example. New value-added variations of this centuries-old offering continue to surface ranging from different flavored and pre-cooked, shelf-stable bacons to chocolate bars with bacon to Jack in the Box’s limited-time offering Bacon (flavored) Shake. In mid-February, maple-glazed bacon doughnuts introduced by a small doughnut chain in Colorado found great interest....and success.

Ceci Snyder, National Pork Board vice president of domestic marketing, agrees with my premise. “Bacon is a great example,” she says. “We heard one year ago the bacon fad is over, but as you referenced, the Jack in the Box Bacon (flavored) Shake was recently available. And on Feb. 16, Jay Leno was eating maple-glazed bacon doughnuts on the show.”

Pulled pork is another example. “We’ve seen pulled pork going bananas at restaurants,” Snyder says. “The interest in pulled pork keeps coming. That product has been around forever. Since last summer, Quiznos, Subway and now Firehouse Subs have a pulled-pork sandwich. ‘

Marketing remains vitally important to keep categories vibrant. “We’re seeing so much traction with our ‘Pork: Be inspired’ campaign, which was launched last April. It positions creativity in the kitchen and versatility,” Snyder says. ‘Pork. The Other White Meat’ is still being used with health professionals as it conveys leanness and does that well. We’re finding with the ‘Be Inspired’ campaign that it’s for a very specific audience who enjoys cooking and doesn’t think of pork as too fatty or too hard to cook...they love to cook with our product, they just didn’t think about it very much before this campaign. We hadn’t been investing in marketing. So last year, we greatly upped our marketing spend and it has been quite successful.”

Pork processors might consider adding value to various cuts by incorporating marinades, rubs, sauces and more. Consumers need a nudge, some inspiration and ideas for different pork dishes. Consumers are really open to new ideas. Snyder insists. “They’re always pushing the envelope [regarding] new food ideas. Worldwide cuisine and the variety of flavors are very appropriate for pork.”

Processors must think beyond the traditional chop on the plate. “We eventually are going to need to get consumers thinking about pork in mixed dishes—more stir-fry offerings and casseroles...that’s how people cook nowadays. We have lots of opportunities going forward.”

Everyone loves meat, Snyder says. “We’re carnivores at heart,” she adds. “Pork has shown it fits into many different world cuisines and cultures. Pork fits in well with Asian and Latin American flavors, she adds. “We’re not worried about it going out of style. We need to remind consumers of all the benefits of pork. We’re looking for 2012 to be a very good year.”

Trevor Amen, director of market intelligence for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, also agrees with the premise that there is no such thing as a mature category. He points out several programs to support this premise. The Beef Alternative Merchandising Program in fresh meat is one. “This is an innovative way to fabricate the main middle-meat items -- the ribeye, top loin or strip and top sirloin,” Amen says. “This program is primarily driven by two major factors: addressing larger carcass sizes and consumer demand for more correctly portioned products, further trimmed – with a healthier image and more single-serving options.”

This program is driving innovation in the fresh beef industry, Amen iterates...and it requires listening to consumers and adapting to their needs.

Muscle profiling is also helping to keep beef product ideas fresh and new. In recent years, the Beef Checkoff has worked with universities to look at underutilized cuts in the carcass and understand individual whole muscles and look at their eating attributes as far as tenderness and flavor, Amen says. Notable new beef products that have come out of that research and have been implemented in the marketplace include the Flat Iron and the Shoulder Petite Tender.

“And there are also a lot of opportunities for individual muscle cuts in the rounds, which is currently being researched,” Amen says. “They’re finding applications in retail and foodservice channels.”

Providing consumers with convenient beef meal solutions is possible by offering marination or seasoning packets, recipe ideas and cross-merchandising with produce to provide that quick-and-easy meal solution and convenience to the consumer, Amen says. “There definitely is opportunity in this area and we are seeing momentum in that category of the fresh-meat case,” he adds.

Constantly evolving packaging technologies are also helping product categories stay contemporary. “We’re seeing newer packaging where you can microwave ground beef and even whole-muscle roasts and end up with a very good eating experience,” Amen says.

During the past year, the American Heart Association certification for extra-lean has entered the scene and the initial item is 96 percent lean ground beef. The Beef Checkoff has worked on certifying three other items from the top sirloin, which are Select products—top-sirloin filet, top-sirloin petite roast and top-sirloin kabobs. Such products meet the needs of consumers who are health-conscious and looking for that lean beef option, Amen says. These qualify for extra-lean, which is a much stricter qualification than the 29 leans cuts already classified as lean, according to USDA standards, he adds.

Keeping categories vibrant comes down to listening to the consumer plus being innovative and providing a variety of options to meet everyone’s needs and budget parameters, Amen insists. “We all know Americans love to eat beef and we’re going to continue to evolve and give them that option,” he concludes.

Chicken innovation is also flying high. Decades ago, the chicken wing was all but ignored. But along the way, entrepreneurs discovered adding value primarily through offering various flavors caused chicken wing demand and sales to go through the roof. In 2012, more than 13.5 billion chicken wings (more than 3 billion lbs.) will be marketed as wings (as opposed to the wings on whole chicken or breast quarters) this year, the National Chicken Council estimates. The number of wing portions sold is more than 25 billion since most wings are cut into two segments or portions.

Of these, approximately 9.5 billion wings (2.2 billion lbs.) will be sold through foodservice channels. Another four billion wings (800 million lbs.) will be sold in retail grocery stores – 3 billion as ready to cook (raw) or frozen and one billion ready to eat wings usually found in the deli section or the hot buffet in the store.

NCC’s Bill Roenigk, senior vice president, and Tom Super, vice president of communications, also provide other examples of contemporary, successful chicken products from what were once considered mature categories. Rotisserie chicken was popular in the ‘50s but entered a lull. In the 1980’s, Boston Chicken (now Market) reinvented this item. “Now, this product is in almost every supermarket and wholesale club, as well, and comes in dozens of flavors, marinades and rubs, including bourbon, garlic and herb, Chesapeake, honey, etc.,” they say.

Look closely at the meat case and you’ll find a wider variety of chicken sausages and hot dogs, plus chicken meatballs among other innovative items. “Thinly-sliced chicken breast and marinated product has given boneless, skinless breast meat a new lift in what many considered a mature category,” they continue. “And you can add that to boneless chicken wings, chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, chicken McBites, popcorn chicken, etc. which are mostly derived from breast meat.”

Even the chicken broth category is experiencing some activity. Mountain Coffee k-cups is coming-out with chicken broth, if it hasn’t done so already, Roenigk and Super say.

“A product only matures and stays mature if you do not allow for propagation and offspring,” Roenigk and Super maintain. “As Harry Balzer says, ‘Make my life easier relative to a food product, and you will have a successful product.’ Chicken broth k-cups may be such an example.”

US consumers’ tastes and wants are constantly changing and evolving. Those forward-thinking companies that view this ongoing evolution as an opportunity for new product development and not a burden in trying to keep up with an evolving marketplace will set new sales records, capture additional market share and keep categories alive and vibrant.

Perhaps most important, give your customers and consumers what they want because if you don’t — your competitors will.