The iconic hot dog, criticized by some for containing “mystery meat,” has received a major image upgrade – thanks to Angus beef.

The number of meat products containing Angus beef has taken off the past few years. Meat companies, capitalizing on consumers’ positive perceptions of Angus as a high-quality protein, are now introducing Angus beef products in categories that more shoppers can afford, like hot dogs.

According to AC Nielson, the hot dog category nearly doubled its Angus offerings from June 2009 through 2010.

“Years ago, people didn’t believe frankfurters were considered a quality product, and that they were made with pieces and parts,” says Brett Erickson, director of value-added products for Certified Angus Beef, a brand owned by the American Angus Association.

Eventually, hot dogs began incorporating beef, chicken and turkey. An all-beef hot dog was considered as the highest-quality offering. Not any more.

“Angus is the next level,” Erickson says, noting he wouldn’t be surprised to see a Kobe beef frankfurter take the hot dog to even a higher level someday.

Consumers want to feel good about the foods they purchase, regardless of the price point, Erickson says. Angus beef makes them feel that way.

Usinger original
Certified Angus Beef has had a hot dog in the marketplace for about 15 years. The branded beef program collaborated with specialty manufacturer Usinger’s Famous Sausage in Milwaukee to create the product, which is manufactured to the same specifications as Usinger’s original frankfurter. It contains fresh garlic and no binders, and is smoked over an open fire in a two-story brick oven.

“I will argue it was the first Angus frank in the marketplace,” Erickson says.

Usinger’s has made sausage for more than 125 years. The Certified Angus Beef brand is 32 years old.

“Usinger’s truly understands the gourmet side of this business, and we really wanted to have a product we were proud of – a product that represented our premium position in the marketplace,” Erickson says.

Certified Angus Beef’s image got a huge lift in 2002 when it was named the official branded beef supplier for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Usinger’s Certified Angus Beef Frankfurters were served to the athletes during the games. “That’s when you started to see an opportunity for franks to be more than just your everyday hot dogs,” Erickson says.

Marketers of Sara Lee’s Ball Park brand capitalized on that opportunity a few years ago when it launched its Angus Beef Franks. Amy Grabow, Ball Park’s marketing director, says the brand has received positive feedback from consumers.

“After we launched the brand in the spring of 2008, we followed that launch with Ball Park Angus Beef Bun Size Franks and Ball Park Angus Beef Lower Fat Full Taste Franks in the spring of 2009,” she says.

“Angus Beef had always been a popular choice when it came to steaks and burgers, so the Ball Park brand decided to offer consumers the opportunity to enjoy that great quality and flavor in a hot dog,” Grabow says.

The Angus craze has recently extended into the sausage category. Last October, Nathan’s all-beef and pork/beef loop sausage was launched as “now made with Angus beef” by Specialty Foods Group under license from Nathan’s Famous Systems.

Nathan’s loop sausage made with Angus beef is available in two varieties: beef smoked sausage, made with 100 percent Angus beef; and beef and pork polska kielbasa, the beef portion of which is Angus.

Ken Schissler, general manager of Nathan’s, says “[Angus] seems to be the hot button. Our loop sausage wasn’t doing well. We decided to put Angus beef in it and join the parade, and see how it does.”

Since its fall debut, Schissler assesses its success with optimism. “So far, so good,” he says. Interestingly, Nathan’s, which offers one of the most popular branded hot dogs in the market, elected not to introduce an Angus frankfurter. “We’re already perceived as having a high-level hot dog.”

Sales of Angus hot dog brands haven’t hurt sales of Nathan’s all-beef hot dog, Schissler says. “Our sales are up from last year,” he adds, despite their premium price point. “Nathan’s is probably the most expensive hot dog out there, but we haven’t lost any business.”

Janet Sweeney, SFG’s director of marketing, says Nathan’s high-quality image hot dog should help its loop sausage sell. “Nathan’s hot dogs have a well-established brand and are in high distribution,” she says. “Nathan’s sausage is not so well established. It’s a product category where we don’t have a large market share, so we thought we’d try something different.”

The quality perception of Angus plays an important role in the new products. “There’s a high-quality connotation with Angus beef,” Sweeney says. “By combining the Nathan’s brand with Angus beef, we have a really strong combination.”

Nathan’s is one of the first brands with Angus loop sausage.

Angus options
Erickson is amazed at the number of hot dog SKUs that supermarkets offer.

“They’re all trying to differentiate themselves,” he says. “They’re all trying to one-up one another.”

He knows processors with Angus brands can get a leg up on their competitors, even if they’re not using CAB. He also knows that Angus is viewed as premium beef largely because of the CAB brand, even if some consumers and retailers don’t know the difference between the two.

Certified Angus Beef is better than just Angus beef, Erickson says. It’s a consistent, high-quality brand with 10 specifications to ensure it’s meeting certain quality standards. Marbling is the most important standard.

“If it’s not upper two-thirds of Choice or Prime, then it doesn’t meet Certified Angus Beef specifications, regardless if it’s Angus or not,” Erickson says. Only one in five Angus cattle meet CAB specifications.

Hot dogs made with Certified Angus Beef have a more coarse texture profile and don’t have a tight bind, he adds. More meat companies are capitalizing on the Angus name because Angus beef is readily available and is fairly priced, says Erickson, who’s not bothered that other companies are taking advantage of the Angus name, even though they’re not using Certified Angus Beef.

“We see it as a benefit because it creates demand for Angus cattle,” Erickson says. “But it’s also a challenge for us to differentiate between the Certified Angus Beef brand and Angus cattle.”

Fritz Usinger, CEO of Usinger’s Famous Sausage, says processors that have introduced Angus hot dogs are riding on CAB’s coattails.

“Certified Angus Beef has a high-quality reputation and so do we,” Usinger says. The company also makes summer sausage, Andouille and Polish sausage made with Certified Angus Beef. “It made a lot of sense to partner with them. We both recognized the quality that each of us brings to the table.”

Usinger’s Certified Angus Beef frank has been well received, Usinger says, adding that the retailers carrying the product realize it’s a premium product sold at a premium price.

“We have a little product in a lot of different places,” he says. The biggest challenge is brand recognition, Erickson says.

“Nathan’s, Oscar Mayer and Ball Park have national recognition,” he says. “Their brands have a stronger national presence.”

With the influx of Angus hot dogs and other products, Erickson expects more consumers will wonder what the difference is between regular Angus beef and Certified Angus Beef.

“Most consumers don’t know the difference in quality,” he says. Some retailers also don’t understand the difference, he adds.

“Retailers believe they can buy an Angus hot dog from [a brand processor] at a lower price point and still offer their customers an Angus frank,” Erickson says. “When you’re up against national manufacturers that have a lot of control in a particular category, it’s easier for a retailer to add a SKU from a larger manufacturer than keep an SKU from a small one that doesn’t have the national brand and dollars to spend to promote that product.”

Erickson tells retailers to keep Certified Angus Beef hot dogs, such as Usinger’s product, in the meat case where other Certified Angus Beef products are located.

“Then you’re communicating a different quality level with Certified Angus franks than you would with other hot dog brands,” he says. “The shopper buying the frank in the frank section may not be the same shopper buying CAB in the fresh meat case.”

Schissler says he checked to see if Nathan’s could use Certified Angus Beef in the loop sausage, but he says there wasn’t enough available to produce the amount Nathan’s needed.

However, Schissler says Nathan’s is relying on a few reputable suppliers to supply the Angus beef. These suppliers also supply Nathan’s with beef for its hot dogs.

Staying power
“New products and trends come and go in the food industry,” Sweeney says, and the image enhancement Angus has brought to this segment is apparently solid. “Consumers are embracing…products made with Angus beef.”

Grabow believes companies will continue to introduce Angus into their line of products.

“In addition, we’re also seeing many of the quick-service chains introduce or re-introduce Angus into their menus,” she says. “This is a growing trend, and we will continue to see an up-rise in Angus products.”

Schissler says the Angus trend is bound to cool off.

“I think the craze will drop back, but I don’t know when,” he adds.

Larry Aylward is a contributing editor based in Cleveland.