The grinds sector is packed with potential.

While ground beef remains a major supermarket meat department revenue generator, alternatives such as ground pork, chicken and turkey also are becoming more popular as consumers seek newer and healthier meal options.

The technologies available for producing and packaging grinds, meanwhile, are making it easier for processors to develop a wider range of higher quality products, analysts note.

Blends of ground beef — including products with prime, chuck, brisket and short ribs, for instance — are increasingly popular in restaurants and retail outlets as merchandisers seek to offer unique flavors, says Geoff Parsh, plant manager for Schweid & Sons, a Carlstadt, N.J.-based ground beef purveyor.

“Many retailers also are starting to offer healthier blends, such as meats that are 90 to 95 percent lean, as consumers want less fat in their diets,” he notes, adding there also is greater demand for product traceability.

More consumers are seeking the origination points of ground meats and want to know if cattle were grain fed, grass fed and handled in a certified humane manner, Parsh says.

Grinding technologies are more effectively eliminating bone and sinew from proteins, resulting in a superior eating experience, Parsh says. The inclusion of sophisticated packaging and wrapping technologies on production lines helps to speed processing and extend the shelf life of meat and poultry. The equipment also reduces the human handling of meat, which lowers the threat of contamination, he says.

More processors also are adding scanning technologies to production lines that quickly indicate the protein’s fat content. Suppliers can then add grinds with specific leanness levels to batches to adjust the fat ratio if readings are higher or lower than intended, he says.


Technology is the ticket

Processors are increasingly using metal detection and X-ray machines to screen for foreign material contamination and leveraging photo scanners to ensure patties are properly shaped and the code dating on labels is in the correct spot, Parsh says.

Such equipment — along with grinding, patty forming, packaging and conveyance technologies — is becoming more accurate and helping to ensure product consistency, says Mark Gwin, product integration manager at Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef LLC. “Microbiological testing also is becoming increasingly rapid and precise and thereby offering even greater assurances of food safety,” he says.

Advances in digital and temperature controls, meanwhile, enable processors to maintain optimal temperatures during grinding to enhance product quality, while the use of digital controls on newer bone-elimination equipment adds consistency to ground meat products, he says.

Gwin says processors can further maintain or enhance the taste and texture of ground meats by keeping plates and knives on grinding equipment sharp, and using technologies that boost operating efficiency.

“Machines instead of humans will reject products that are not in the right format,” he says. “That makes the process more effective and the packaging more uniform.”

Production challenges remain. They include the need to efficiently develop smaller batches of grinds that meet the requirements of retailers and their customers, such as patties in particular sizes or blends and ensuring there is ample product available in the different varieties, Parsh says.

“There is only so much meat that comes off each head of cattle, and prime cuts are especially limited,” he says. “Because it takes two years to raise a head of cattle for slaughter, greater demands for grass-fed or natural meats that processors develop without antibiotics will require that they find new avenues for the supplies.”

Because consumers increasingly seek grinds that are organic, non GMO, hormone-free and pasture raised, a shortage of inventory may require producers to depend on import partners to acquire some selections, says Kari Underly, principle at Range Inc., a Chicago-based meat and poultry marketing, consulting, training and certification firm.

“There is only so much available pasture and the old 90/10 and 80/20 designations for fat content on ground meat labels won’t cut it anymore with many shoppers,” she says. “Consumers are looking for transparency and want more data about the products, such as being natural. They are more knowledgeable and aware of what is on the label.”

Additional shoppers also are willing to pay higher amounts for prime and other premium grinds, Underly says, adding that the use of clear packing will enable merchandisers to better spotlight the texture and color of such products and boost consumer interest.

The steeper retail cost of higher-end grinds, however, still limits overall sales, she says, recommending meat department and processor employees undergo product training so they can better explain to shoppers and distributors why such selections are worth the price.


A wider range of options

While standard ground beef is the most prevalent grind in retail meat cases, Gwin says producers “have just scratched the surface” when it comes to marketing a wider range of options.

“Some processors offer chuck and brisket blends, but varieties will continue to grow and be popular go-to items, especially among Millennial shoppers,” he says.

The perception that ground chicken, pork, turkey and lamb is leaner than beef is helping to spur interest in those options as well, Underly says.

“Leveraging food for better health is a trend that presents an enormous, yet underrepresented, opportunity for meat and poultry,” according to the Power of Meat 2018 report. “Three-quarters of shoppers put effort into making nutritious and healthful meat and poultry choices. These are valuable shoppers to retailers, with above-average spending on premium, high-margin items and above-average total store spending and trips.”

The Power of Meat 2018 is published by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Meat & Poultry Research & Education and prepared by 210 Analytics, LLC, a San Antonio-based marketing research and marketing strategies firm.

While most meat shoppers buy grinds because of price, versatility or ease of preparation, aspects such as convenience, transparency and healthy living are resulting in more robust sales possibilities, says Anne-Marie Roerink, 210 Analytics LLC principal.

“Ground beef is the most numerous beef item in the case and the highest seller,” she says. “But the true opportunity is to move volume on the conventional side and also entice shoppers with ‘one-size-fits-me’ offerings based on lower fat, a certain breed, like Angus or Hereford, or specific raising claims, such as antibiotic free or grass fed.”  NP


Beyond ground beef

While ground beef dominates the grind sector, other protein categories are on track to garner a greater share of grind revenues.

The Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board (NPB) will conduct consumer research this summer to determine how to best position ground pork to consumers and the specific varieties to offer, says Patrick Fleming, NPB director of market intelligence.

“It is important to understand where pork can have a unique role in the grind complex,” he says.

Because many retailers only offer a single SKU of ground pork that is intended to satisfy consumers who need it for recipes, it is difficult for the protein to compete with ground beef, which is typically available in a wide range of leanness levels, Fleming says.

“There is opportunity from a health perspective for offering a variety of ground pork, especially super lean or extra-lean products,” he says. “For many consumers, low fat drives the day.”

Grinds also can be an attractive gateway product into the pork category, particularly for younger shoppers who are unfamiliar with the protein, Fleming says.

“Shoppers who become comfortable with ground pork can then move on to whole muscles,” he says. “Grinds also will take some merchandising pressure off the primal by enabling more options and being the go-to item for value-oriented shoppers,” Fleming says. “Merchandisers just have to position it correctly.”

The need to change the retailers’ marketing mindset, and the subsequent status quo of the meat case, are the main obstacles to merchandisers offering a variety of ground pork, he says. For long-term acceptance, the grinds also must generate incremental revenue instead of just trading out sales with the products that the ground pork replaces, he says.

Getting more consumers to sample ground chicken also is a challenge, says Tom Super, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council (NCC).

He says merchandisers can get greater attention for chicken grinds by positioning the products as a healthier premium protein and offering a variety of value-added options, such as chicken burgers and chicken meat loaf.

Retailers also can boost sales by spotlighting the selections in weekly ads and by cross-merchandising the grinds with compatible products, which may include bread and buns, premium salad mix, vegetables, spices and seasonings, Super says.

— Richard Mitchell