They’ve been called “awful meats,” slammed by mainstream consumers for their “nauseating” origins. But offal meats (variety meats) may be gaining popularity among those consumers, especially in the form of case-ready products.

Greeley, Colo.-based JBS USA is the latest processor to embrace case-ready variety meats. In February, the company launched a case-ready offal room at its beef-processing plant in Cactus, Texas, which will produce case-ready tripe, oxtails, tongue and other variety meats.

“We’ve had a great response to the line right out of the chute,” says John Flynn, director of beef sales and marketing for JBS USA, noting traditional retailers, super centers and non-traditional retailers are interested in stocking it.

Case-ready packaging allows retailers to offer these niche products in a form that maximizes shelf life. Cargill produces the Rumba line.

JBS USA joins other processors, including Tyson Foods and Cargill, in offering case-ready variety meats. With case-ready packaging, retailers can offer these niche products, which are more susceptible to shrinkage than conventional meat cuts, in a form that maximizes shelf-life.

While many processors have offered variety meats for years — marketing them mainly to ethnic groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and others — presenting them in case-ready formats could boost their sales to the next level. And it might not just be ethnic groups purchasing the products. Mainstream consumers, who are becoming more exposed to variety meats through food shows and restaurants, could also drive sales.

Jerry Kelly, national retail account manager at Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air Corp., says case-ready variety meats will grow because the population of ethnic groups continues to grow. “We have more immigrants coming to the US, and they are bringing their palates with them,” he says.

But Kelly is also convinced that more mainstream American consumers will consume variety meats. “It will take more than just the product [to get them interested],” he says. “It might take something like a celebrity chef’s [recipe] to trigger their interest. But I think people are looking to try new things.”

The case-ready edge

Retailers learned several years ago that variety meats experienced high shrinkage in traditional PVC overwrap packaging, Kelly says. With commodity prices soaring for beef and pork, retailers wanted no part of shrinkage on such proteins.

“One way to help reduce shrinkage is to get those products into case-ready packaging, whether its vacuum-packaged or modified-atmosphere packaged, to extend the shelf-life,” Kelly says.

Case-ready variety meats fit nicely into meat cases dedicated to case-ready products, Kelly says. Retailers selling variety meats have seen the benefits of doing so, such as less shrinkage and branded programs.

JBS USA has produced fresh variety meats for more than 25 years, but decided to change its focus and deliver them in a case-ready format. Also, JBS’ customer needs have changed in terms of meeting their consumers’ needs.

A growing population consisting of various ethnic groups will ensure that demand for products such as beef tongue will continue to grow.

“Our shift in focus is matched with evolving category demands for consumer-ready fresh offal,” Flynn says. “Smaller packaging, improved labeling and a shelf-life of 28 days all better fit the needs of our customers, as well as the needs of today’s busy consumer.”

Freshness is also a key purchase influencer, Flynn says. “Our products are made-to-order so our customers can be assured they’re offering fresh products that meet consumers’ expectations,” he adds.

Cargill introduced its Rumba line of case-ready variety meats in 2007. It includes 30 fresh beef and pork meat cuts the company says “are an integral part of the traditions and cultures of multicultural consumers.”

“We saw a huge opportunity based on the Hispanic population growth and knew that our [retail] customers would need to provide a solution to serve that consumer’s protein needs,” says Jackie Lopez, marketing head for the Rumba line. “So, after extensive brand research and development, we merged an existing product line with the value proposition of a brand that specifically targets and resonates with the ethnic consumer.”

Cargill’s research shows that ethnic consumers prefer the Rumba case-ready line when compared to traditional tray overwrap, Lopez adds. “One of the top reasons is that our packaging allows for visibility of the product,” she says. “And that’s a huge benefit for the consumer in terms of communicating the quality of the product.”

It’s important to understand that consumers who desire variety meats are just as concerned about quality as consumers who want steak, Lopez notes.

Variety meats are incorporated into an array of cuisines.

“In times of economic uncertainty, it has to be of value to the consumer, so, we strive to provide our retailer customers a product that delivers on both aspects,” she adds.

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods introduced case-ready variety meats for many of the same reasons Cargill did. Tyson also offers retailers the opportunity to customize its line with their own labels.

American Foods Group has offered a small line of case-ready variety meats, including tongues and oxtail, for several years. Paul Olszewski, a sales representative at Green Bay, Wis.-based American Foods Group, says the company doesn’t have the plant space to expand the line, but that could change in the future.

“It would involve some capital and additional handling, but it’s something we could do,” he says. “In a perfect world, I would love to see us expand the line.”

From a processing perspective, Olszewski says it’s important to move variety meats into a chilling area quickly after processing because they can typically be higher in bacteria than other cuts.

“They’re exposed to processing under much warmer temperatures where bacteria can grow faster,” he explains. “If you were to do swab tests on bacteria counts, you would get higher plate counts, in general, on variety meats than you would any other skeletal meat.”

The retail connection

Retailers have become more adept at marketing products based on demographics and shopper behavior at stores located in specific areas, Flynn says. JBS USA works closely with retailers to define customer demographics, from purchasing habits to customer needs, which dictate products in the line that will sell.

“Then we can work together to find the right program or product offering to best fit their businesses,” Flynn says. “For some of our customers, that means variety meats.”

Cargill also works with its retail customers to market the line in various ways, Lopez says.

“We start by customizing the product mix based on the demographics that shop their stores,” he adds. “Our demographic tools help retailers offer the cuts that are most relevant to their unique customer base. From there we offer in-store promotional elements to drive awareness and communicate the benefits of the product line.”

Cargill aims to provide retailers with solutions, Lopez says. “Many retailers don’t have the resources to clean, cut and package variety meats, yet they have consumers in their stores who are looking for these products,” Lopez adds. “The Rumba line allows retailers to stock their meat cases with a quality product and serve their ethnic consumers at the same time.”

"Culinary explorers" are looking for new and authentic ways to experience different cultures.

Education is crucial at point of sale, says Kelly, noting that Sealed Air research reveals that it should be done in three or four bullet points.

“A visual or icon can help as well,” Kelly adds, noting that recipes at point of sale or attractive plated photos of cooked product will also assist.

Walmart has done a good job of promoting and selling variety meats with the Rumba line. “Walmart is good at knowing who’s shopping its individual stores and targeting its products to those stores,” Kelly says.

Moving into the mainstream

At his upscale restaurant Roast in Detroit, Celebrity Chef Michael Symon offers beef cheek pierogies and oxtail risotto, among other variety meat dishes. Symon and other chefs have exposed mainstream Americans to variety meats.

“Variety meats are, in a way, becoming more fashionable,” Flynn says. “For instance, we see offal being incorporated onto menus of hot restaurants or in the dishes of young, up-and-coming chefs.”

Demographic shifts in the US are likely to drive long-term demand for ethnic-food options, Flynn says. And while JBS USA is targeting ethnic groups with the line, it’s also marketing it toward mainstream consumers.

“Variety meats are incorporated into a wide variety of cuisine from Italian to Hispanic to Asian,” Flynn says. “There are certain ethnicities that will be attracted to certain products. But the breadth of the product line is big enough that it’s certainly multicultural as we see it and, most importantly, as our customers see it.”

Lopez says two variables will drive variety meats to become mainstream. “No. 1, our culture is becoming more and more diverse, and multicultural is now mainstream,” she adds. “We’ll see many different ethnic traditions, especially traditional ethnic foods, [become] mainstream.”

No. 2, non-ethnic consumers are looking for new and authentic ways to experience other cultures, and they’re open to new eating experiences, Lopez adds.

“We call them culinary explorers,” she says. “The Rumba line is primed to help them explore authentic dishes.”

Larry Aylward is a freelance editor from Medina, Ohio.