It can be a mystery. There are no clear leads. There are some main players as well as some intriguing characters.
In the case of casings used by meat and poultry processors, an analogy to a mystery may be a bit of a stretch. But it’s not bending the truth to note that concurrent trends affect the types of casings used for sausages, hot dogs and other processed meat and poultry products.

For starters, many processors seeking to keep a lid on costs at a time of tighter-than-ever margins appreciate the financial benefits of synthetic casings. On the other hand, qualityminded, “foodie” consumers are driving demand for specialty sausages and hot dogs made with natural casings. At the same time, while the movement toward natural and organic products remains somewhat niche, interest is growing in more Earth-friendly ingredients and materials.

What’s a processor or a casing supplier to do? Those in this segment of the industry say when it comes to casings, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, for a manufacturer or for a product line.

“Customers are looking for casings that will work under variable conditions because they are constantly re-engineering their products to take advantage of new ingredients, new formulations and lower costs,” reports Tom Meyers, general manager for Willowbrook, Ill.-based Walsroder Packaging, a provider of plastic and fibrous casings.

James Mendiola, marketing manager for San Antonio-based hog-casing producer, DeWied International Inc., says the market for casings is increasingly diversified and driven by convergent market trends. Although DeWied specializes in natural hog and lamb casings, Mendiola says artificial casings are among the company’s largest growth segment. “Traditionally nothing will be better than a natural casing, but my opinion is that people are looking at artificial because of cost reasons,” he says, citing the deep recession, combined with higher hog prices in recent years.

One result of the variety of marketplace demands and operational realities is an expanded portfolio of casings. DeWied, for example, offers a broad range of hand-pulled, knife-cut and inverted hog casings, including items like colored casings and casings for home packing. “We’ve always carried new types of casings, and adjust to what the market is asking for,” notes Mendiola.

Walsroder, meanwhile, also has worked to produce fibrous and plastic casings that suit the needs of particular processors to address the diverse demand for their products. “We tailor our treatments and colors to match the customer’s need,” notes Meyers.

As casing providers supply more options, processors are using more and different types of casings. A major national brand of tubular meat products, for instance, may offer natural-casing frankfurters using costlier sheep intestines to complement their other items encased in synthetic cellulose or plastic. In turn, regional sausage companies that have built their business on authentic sausages in hog or sheep casings often broaden their business with new products, including skinless items, and may look to synthetic casings to cut expenses.

Meyers agrees that the marketplace for casings used in sausages, frankfurters and other processed meats continues to evolve. “The rise in consumer knowledge has forced our customers to expand their product range,” he reports. “Previously, our customers manufactured few SKU’s with lots of volume. Now, they have expanded their product range with many SKU’s, but with less volume per SKU.”

Adding more options
Even a company that specializes in natural products with natural casings often has an array of choices to appeal to today’s discerning buyers. For example, Coleman Natural Products, based in Golden, Colo., uses both lamb and hog casings for its chicken sausage, bratwurst, kielbasa and frankfurters. The company also offers a line of skinless hot dogs.

According to Eva Safar, vice president of marketing, consumers’ taste for high-end products with a true “snap” are in demand. The popularity has been fueled by the clamor for organic and natural attributes and because of the renewed popularity of the once-humble sausage on restaurant menus and on TV food shows. “Grocery stores that have brought in high-end or gourmet sausage products, primarily made with poultry and using quality ingredients like roasted garlic and fresh basil, have seen an increase in sales,” she says, adding that many retailers are learning that customers are looking for organic options in every category, from fresh chicken to fresh chicken sausage, and that if they don’t find them in one store, they’ll go to another.

The move toward natural and organic products also has spurred development of newer casings for such products. One case in point: DeWied now offers antibiotic-free casings, according to Mendiola.

Also a result of growing demand for organic, natural and sustainable products is the switch from fibrous casings to plastic casings to cook and ship products, according to Meyers. “This can result in replacing a printed overwrap bag to just printing the plastic casing and eliminating the cost of the extra packaging – also a ‘green’ contribution,” he explains.

Meanwhile, heightened competition in the meat and deli case and foodservice kitchen has led to additional changes in casings. Meyers, for his part, says that the growing specialty and ethnic market for sausage requires a casing printed in multiple colors for retail presentation. “As a result of the recent resurgence, we’ve enhanced our product appearance and improved our printing technology,” he reports.

Shelf-life and food safety are additional drivers for new synthetic casings. Meyers notes the trend of highbarrier plastic casings. “Some people think all plastic casings supply a barrier. This is not true,” he remarks, citing Walroder’s K Plus plastic casing, which includes an oxygen barrier and layers of nylon for added strength.

Lynn Petrak is a free-lance writer based in the Chicago area.