There’s a lot going on at the typical meat case these days, both behind the scenes and right in front of the consumer. Greater variety, including both animal and plant-based proteins, is evident. So, too, is the inclusion of brands from global processors, niche players and startups. It might be harder for shoppers to find and talk to an in-store butcher at today’s supermarkets.

One thing these and other meat case trends have in common is the continued influx of case-ready fresh products, spanning meat, poultry, seafood and plant-based items. Case-ready products first changed the face of the meat case a couple of decades ago, and the pace of change continues.

The retail meat case is still a destination. According to the 2019 “Power of Meat” report published by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), now known as FMI – The Food Industry Association, fresh meat and poultry is used by 68 percent of shoppers in the US.

Retailers have their own reasons for going with more case-ready items. “Part of the economic justification of case ready is to reduce store shrink or waste, due to longer shelf life. But the real benefit is to increase sales, because the store can put more product on display with less likelihood it will go bad before it sells,” points out Houston Keith, principal of market research and business development firm Keymark Associates, Marietta, Georgia.

Retail juggernaut Walmart has invested in a case-ready facility as part of its supply chain for Angus beef. Kroger has plants in Los Angeles for the chain’s Ralph’s stores, and in Denver for its King Sooper locations, Keith says.

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Butcher block?

One market reality that has contributed to the ongoing expansion of case-ready proteins is the labor market and the role of retail butchers. According to the US Dept. of Labor Statistics, the number of butchers in the country is around 135,500, with a job outlook growth rate of 3 percent through 2028, slower than the average rate for all occupations.

“There is still a shortage of butchers, exacerbated by the fact that butchers don’t command the premium wages as much as they did. Wages have not gone down, but not grown as fast,” Keith explains.

Rick Stein, vice president, fresh foods for FMI, says the labor situation is one catalyst for case ready. “Unfortunately, with trained butchers being on the decline, I do believe there will be increased demand for case ready meat,” he says, adding, “Consumers are getting more comfortable with the ‘purple effect’ of case ready and realize it’s keeping meat fresher. They are more willing to accept case ready.”

Ryan Vessell, vice president of innovation and growth with the Portioned Proteins Innovations team within the Tyson Fresh Meats division of Tyson Foods, agrees the long-term presence of meat cutters may be diminished. “It’s a really tight labor market, and labor is a contributing factor to case ready. Also, with food safety regulations becoming tight, too, you see more ownership being put back on the supplier side,” Vessell says.

While dynamics in the meat cutting profession are spurring food retailers to add more case-ready products as solutions, other macro trends are also spurring the expansion of these items, such as consumers’ growing interest in delivery services, including premium meats from online brands, and the splintering of the retail world. Similar things are happening in foodservice, as chefs and culinary professionals continue to use smaller case ready portions of fresh meats rather than butcher large cuts on their own.

“Channels are changing, and every one of the trends you’re seeing is related to the different ways people are shopping. Consumers are going to the shopping occasion that best meets their needs, whether it’s the grocery store, dollar store, c-stores or restaurant,” Vessell says.

Brands branch out

As selling opportunities widen across all channels, brands are distinguishing their products with case-ready innovations, both from a product and packaging standpoint.

Tyson, for its part, continues to add to its portfolio of case-ready proteins. One avenue for that brand’s growth that reflects today’s marketplace is the availability of case ready meal kits with protein as an ingredient.

Note that protein is an ingredient in some of these products, and not the main attraction. “There are consumers leaning towards smaller portion sizes and that includes the concept of ingredients versus center-of-the-plate,” Vessell says.

When it comes to traditional center-of-the-plate proteins, case-ready products reflect today’s discerning consumers in other ways. “One thing we’ve identified in ground beef is that it has to be relevant and hit on key trends. With ground beef patties, for example, it could be something as simple as having different grinds or having infused patties,” Vessell reports, citing Tyson’s Smokehouse Brisket burger patties and whole muscle steaks marinated with hatch green chilies or pork seasoned al Pastor-style as examples.

Newer brands are also adding case-ready items to catch consumers’ attention. For instance, leveraging the name recognition of the family that includes actor Mark Wahlberg, actor/musician Donnie Wahlberg and Chef Paul Wahlberg, the Wahlburger line of ground beef and burgers, developed in partnership with ARKK Food Company, includes case-ready ground beef, patties, sliders and brick-packs of an Angus beef blend of brisket, short rib and chuck.

In pork, Comfrey Farm, Windom, Minnesota, recently introduced a line of case-ready Certified DUROC Pork, packaged in leak-proof Cryovac bags with on-package storytelling, including how the hogs were raised and on the product’s protein content.

By all appearances

Brands are also differentiating themselves in this busy segment with packaging. Packaging innovations in case ready are based on the look and usefulness of the package as well as other broader trends, like interest in packaging deemed more sustainable or less wasteful.

Advances in packaging are happening along with shifting demand, focusing on providing the experience consumers want while safeguarding a perishable product. “Things like shelf life and technology are evolving in terms of packaging and R&D resources to ensure that, in everything from shrink to what the consumer does downstream with that package,” Vessell notes.

Modified atmosphere packaging that delivers a long shelf life continues to proliferate, buoyed by growing consumer acceptance. “Vacuum trays have slowly increased, starting with niche products like lamb and veal and transitioning to steaks in smaller volumes,” Keith remarks.

At the dawn of a new decade, sustainability and reduced packaging waste continue to be a focus of many food manufacturers, including protein processors.

Recently, OSI Europe, a subsidiary of OSI Group, Aurora, Illinois, began using FlatSkin packaging that reduces the amount of material in packaged meat products by as much as 75 percent.

Stein says that work in this area will continue in earnest. “I believe in innovation and although the answer has not been found yet, there will eventually be environment-friendly packaging that will also be consumer-friendly, food safety friendly and supply chain friendly.”

Finally, while case ready continues to advance, familiarity is still important to many of those who buy fresh meat. “Many consumers say they want freshly butchered meat, as symbolized by the familiar foam tray overwrap, thus this package has persisted, even though it may be done away from the store. Lidded trays are accepted because they look similar enough to the overwrap,” Keith points out.

FMI’s Stein projects a mix of products in a diverse meat case: “There also will always be a strong demand for fresh butcher-cut meats.”