KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Sausage as an entrée, side dish or ingredient is enjoyed by millions of Americans each and every day — and during each day-part. One pork sausage insider points to the strong bond between sausage and US consumers in keeping this culinary love-fest alive and growing.

“Consumers are passionate about sausage products, as they are high in flavor, convenient and versatile,” says Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing, National Pork Board.

More retailers are recognizing that sausage is a product for all seasons and are playing off this versatility. “We’re seeing many retailers building incremental sales by tying sausage items to specific times of year,” Fleming says. “For example, retailers could see added sales by merchandising a wider assortment of brats during tailgating season, promoting Italian sausages as a hearty meal during the cold winter months and merchandising items like sausage and brat patties as an alternative grilling item for the summer.”

Fleming and his associates have witnessed an increase in the number of flavor profiles in sausage products that are more adventuresome and innovative to meet a variety of preferences and palettes, as well as serve as points of differentiation. “Consumers can now find a variety of sausage products including various cheeses, Italian, Southwestern, chili and spicy flavors,” he says. “Convenience continues to be a common theme in sausage products.”

Products such as ready-to-eat dinner sausage links are convenient for consumers to prepare and can be used in a variety of dishes, he adds. These types of products give consumers a wide range of meal options that can be prepared easily in a short amount of time. “We also believe pre-cooked sausage crumbles are gaining steam as an easy and quick ingredient in a variety of dishes,” Fleming says.

Fleming and his NPB colleagues believe sausage sales will remain strong in the coming years. “Consumers today are looking for great bold flavors, convenience and value,” he says. “Sausage products deliver on all of these needs. The category also continues to show innovation, through some of the examples we’ve discussed. That innovation will fuel additional items that meet consumer needs, expanding both the variety and number of sausage items that retailers merchandise.”

Although pork sausage may dominate the retail and foodservice breakfast and dinner sausage categories, other proteins — such as chicken, turkey and beef, among others — are taking a big bite out of traditional sausage markets, as well. I am particularly fascinated with sausage made from beef because I was pretty much raised on traditional pork sausage in the Midwest.

“For Kiolbassa [Provision Company, San Antonio, Texas] products across our 35-state distribution footprint and at retail and foodservice levels, our all-beef sausage is our greeting card, so to speak,” says Michael Johnson, director of branding. “We use our all-beef premium product to introduce ourselves in new, emerging markets to the consumer. Generally, it is our most differentiated offering from any competition in the area and that is why the retailers show the most interest.”

Its smoked beef sausage line-up includes Beef & Cheddar Smoked Sausage, Beef Smoked Sausage, Jalapeño and Smoked Beef Sausage, Jalapeño and Cheddar Smoked Sausage, Mesquite Smoked Beef Sausage and Natural Beef Smoked Sausage.

In July 2013, Huntsville, Texas-based Nolan Ryan Beef announced that Brisket Sausage had joined its beef-sausage portfolio and was available at Kroger stores throughout Texas and Louisiana. Made with 100-percent beef brisket, developing this new product has been a priority for the Nolan Ryan team for some time, said Charlie Bradbury, CEO of Nolan Ryan Beef, at the time of the launch.

“We believe this is the first brisket sausage developed by a company and sold in mass retail,” a company spokesman added during the launch. “We’re always looking for ways to push the boundaries of what we can provide.”

Aside from following recipes in recipe books, many sausage manufacturers offer sausage product recipes gratis on their web sites. These recipes range from traditional pork sausage offerings to the latest in ethnic sausage products containing proteins of all kinds.

Let’s not forget about chicken sausage. During the latest 52 weeks ending 11/30/13, smoked chicken sausage accounted for 8.2 percent of dinner sausage dollar sales. Last year, 2.1 percent of Americans reported consuming chicken sausage at least once in two weeks…more than double what NPD received five years ago, according to the NPD Group.

Chicken sausage manufacturers have positioned chicken sausage varieties as “better for you” than traditional sausage, Nielsen relays. “Better for you” is a concept that it sees winning across the store. New, bold flavors also attract shoppers to chicken sausage.

Nielsen released a study earlier in the year that showed fresh perimeter products with unique/global flavor profiles were up 7 percent in dollars, outpacing growth in traditional staples by three points. Mozzarella Garlic and Spinach Asiago are flavor profiles associated with the top two new chicken sausage items on the market.
For as many new items as Nielsen sees coming into the dinner sausage category, they see almost an equal number moving out, says Tom Super, vice president of communications, the National Chicken Council. “This indicates that retailers in Nielsen’s data set [grocery, super-center and mass] are willing to experiment with new flavor and health concepts, but not at the expense of additional space,” he adds.

One of the most unique sausage products brought to my attention by The Beef Checkoff was Asian-Style Beef Sausage Pot Stickers. For those consumers who have the time and enjoy cooking at home — and for those foodservice operators who want to stand apart from the competition regarding sausage product offerings — nothing beats creating or recreating a product from a unique sausage recipe such as this.

See Meat&Poultry magazine’s special February sausage issue for more on the fascinating world of sausage.