Early this summer, Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of The National Provisioner checked in with Chef Christopher Hansen, corporate executive chef at OSI Group, to get his thoughts on some of the trends driving meat and poultry culinary strategies, and how his company was responding to some of these big-picture targets.
What follows is a portion of their conversation:

Hanacek: From your perspective, what do you think has kept consumers coming back to animal protein in terms of their diets and meals — despite the high prices, the doomsday predictions and rumors of supply shortages and things like that?

Hansen: I think protein is an intricate part of the U.S. diet for sure. Now that the recession is hopefully behind us, people are starting to have a little bit more disposable income and consume more meat. You saw a shift during the recession where consumers were getting prime cuts of meat prior to the downturn, but then gravitated to the ground for cost reasons. Or you saw them shift from beef to pork or chicken. Now with the bad times behind us, people are gravitating more toward some of these higher-end items once again. We see the steak houses are always full. We see a lot of outdoor grilling going on. … People want to experience these things. And if you look at the grocery store, the retail segment has a lot of ready-to-eat meat applications out there, whether it’s a pot roast or Salisbury steak or a chicken curry. These are really touches of tradition in many homes that are very easy for them to prepare, and it brings them a sense of comfort, too.

Hanacek: So it seems every few months, every year or so, we get these fads. The meat and poultry R&D world latches on to some hot new flavors, some hot new trends. What trends and flavors are really driving R&D for meat and poultry right now, beyond at-home cooking or traditional items that you just mentioned?

Hansen: A lot of the trends right now are about listening to what consumers want — not that the industry hasn’t before, but ingredient transparency is critical. The demographic that we’re working with now, they’re information seekers and they want to be able to understand what they’re putting in their bodies.

Also, carcass utilization is critical today, based on the cost of meat, and so is understanding which techniques to apply to those underutilized cuts. We’re very fortunate that we have prime cuts to work with, big muscle groups. As we start to reach further into the animal, we’re [still learning] exactly how some of those underutilized cuts react with traditional ways of cooking. So, through education, we’re yielding some great things.

Hanacek: You mention the recession in the first answer and let’s go back to that a little bit. Everybody was saying people would trade down from high-end steaks to burgers, whether premium burger offerings on menus or in stores. But now that the recession is over, it seems like these premium, gourmet burgers are still popping up when you might think that folks who had ‘traded down’ would have traded back up to those steaks. But you look at the marketplace and there are just burgers upon burgers coming. What do you see as a trend happening there from your position in the industry?

Hansen: I think the trend is going back to basics and to comfort. A hamburger is something that we’re all very familiar with here in the U.S. as a way to celebrate a holiday or have a nice meal together as a family. It resonates on so many different levels, whether it’s heritage, style or comfort. But what can we create around something that’s comforting and is different? We talked about different ingredients, different blends of meat being used, where that animal comes from, how that animal was raised.

You look at a lot of great restaurants, they all have a story about their product. It’s pretty interesting and people resonate with it — and they don’t mind waiting for it. They like the idea of very indulgent ingredients or very simplified preparation. If we take two patties and just sear them with a piece of American cheese, how awesome is that, right? But we can also add fried eggs [or other premium ingredients], whether it’s regional or global. … We recently just went on a burger trek out in New York City, and we saw everything from the value play, all the way up to a premium, $65 hamburger. Burgers are a staple on any type of menu. You can go to the best steakhouse wherever, or the funkiest five-star restaurant, and chances are they’ll have a burger on the menu, because it hits on many different experiences.

Hanacek: Let’s shift gears a bit into formulation. How has the demand for clean-label products changed what OSI Group has been doing on a formulation or development basis?

Hansen: It’s definitely out there. It’s another request from our customers, and we listen to [their demands and their consumers’ demands]. We have a great staff that’s in tune to the shifts and the way people are eating and their knowledge base and the continued education that goes on. We have chefs, and I’ll speak for our R&D folks as well, we want to create the best-tasting product possible. What that entails really is up to the customer at times, or even personal interpretation.

Hanacek: Do you think the “warehouse” of options to meet that clean-label demand are keeping up with the industry’s need? Are there enough options out there to “substitute” for current ingredients or methods, if you will, and still maintain what you want in the best tasting, best quality product?

Hansen: When we talk about clean label, for me, it’s trying to really do something I would do in the kitchen, in a very natural, organic way. And that can be just simply, instead of adding flavors, for example, I can work with the equipment that’s in place and recreate that as if I were working in a restaurant — whether it’s reducing or concentrating flavors or doing some roasting or braising. We take a lot of pride in understanding cooking techniques that really drive flavor. So for our team, the goal is to create products that taste terrific with the most minimal additions possible, because that’s how we develop food. We want to use ingredients that make sense, and not add any complexity if it is not needed. To us, less is more, because we have the skill set to get where we need to get very efficiently.

Hanacek: Low sodium is another talking point in the consumer world here, and it’s nothing new. What are some of the successful things OSI Group has done in to reduce sodium in its portfolio?

Hansen: Approaching sodium reduction from a culinary perspective, there are other ways to develop flavor without salt. We talk about reducing and reacting. We talk about other ingredients that add that umami character to it, whether it’s tomatoes, mushrooms, browning and roasting, or Maillard reaction. Those types of techniques and ingredients are ones we want to incorporate as much as possible. Also, there are a number of solutions that we see in the marketplace that have the low-sodium initiatives behind them, and the products are terrific. NP