A Gourmet Link
By Sandy Parlin
Specialty flavors enhance the appeal of chicken sausage, defining its marketplace
Remember when sausage mostly was an accompaniment to eggs, and the choice was plain or maple-flavored? Today, chicken sausage adorns refrigerated cases and freezers in supermarkets, health-food stores and gourmet shops across the country. Yet, whether it is priced lower than beef or labeled as gourmet cuisine, chicken sausage definitely captures a place in the market.
Of course, centuries ago, when frugal butchers stuffed leftover organ meat into cleaned animal intestines, ‘gourmet sausage’ would have been an oxymoron. Though the filling morphed into ground pork and other meat, sausage was hardly banquet fare.
Now, manufacturers add herbs, spices, and seasonings to chicken to create sausage in flavors such as Andouille, apple, chorizo, Italian, roasted red pepper and sun-dried tomato. Chicken sausage serves as a mealtime favorite, snack or hors d’oeuvre.
In keeping with consumers’ interest in fewer chemical additives and more organic foods, several manufacturers offer natural and organic chicken sausage.
Though only a few decades old in today’s market, chicken sausage goes back centuries. Acheira sausage reportedly first was produced in Mirandela, Portugal. Made from chicken instead of pork, it was created by Jewish people during the Inquisition in order to hide their identity.
Today, chicken sausage is valued as a low-fat, nutritious and tasty alternative to pork and other meats. According to the National Chicken Council (NCC), the gourmet chicken sausage market is 300 to 350 million pounds this year, a pound or more per person.
“Usually we see new products starting in foodservice, but the gourmet chicken sausage products seem to be working the other way around,” says Bill Roenigk, senior vice president of the NCC. Chicken sausage began in gourmet grocery stores and quickly made its way into mainstream supermarkets. Due to its low volume, smaller specialty meat companies are its major producers. Roenigk predicts that it will be a while before gourmet chicken sausage becomes a mass-market item.
“Because the products are upscale with more costly, ‘exotic’ ingredients added to the chicken, the retail price point is somewhat higher,” he explains. “Although this tends to hold down higher volume, repeat purchases are fairly good.”
Gourmet chicken sausage grows 5 to 10 percent per year, which should continue, Roenigk adds.
“We’ll continue to see more different, exotic varieties that provide a wider range of taste adventures,” he notes. “Gourmet chicken sausage producers experiment with many unusual flavors, so new consumers may be more interested in the ethnic or exotic taste than for the chicken itself.”
Chicken hot dogs, on the other hand, are totally different from chicken gourmet sausages. They are at the other end of the price spectrum with prices below their red meat counterparts. They often are mixed with pork or beef.
Manufacturers of equipment for sausage production found it easy to transition from pork and other meats to chicken. Handtmann Inc. of Buffalo Grove, IL, first produced sausage stuffers in the 1960s.
The high-quality, designer sausage with chicken and organic additives uses the Handtmann stuffers with the SL Automated Linking and Hanging Lines, reports Steve Tennis, president of Handtmann. “The basic, good-handling practices for sausage apply to chicken sausage,” he adds.
Canton, MA-based Reiser began producing sausage-making equipment around 1978, recalls Bernd Mense, director of food technology. He adds that chicken sausage marketshare is growing primarily because of nutritional labeling advantages and because chicken is seen as healthier.
Reiser’s frozen meat breaker Rotoclaw, Seydelmann Bowl Cutters, Seydelmann Grinders and AMFEC mixer and blending systems are among the company’s newest innovations in this realm. Others include the Vemag double screw sausage stuffers with inline grinding, linking attachments, inline cutters and hanging devices. For cooked sausages, Reiser produces the Vemag Smoke and Cook Houses. In research and development, Reiser focuses on creating better texture, color, and meat structure, and extending shelf life of chicken sausage.
“Chicken meat is leaner, higher in total moisture and has a lower fat melting point and, therefore, [is processed] differently from red-meat sausage blends,” explains Mense.
Coleman Natural Foods, in Golden, CO, sells two brands of fully cooked and raw chicken sausage: one marketed under the brand Hans’ All Natural Gourmet Sausage, the other under the Coleman Purely Natural banner.
“More and more conventional retailers are seeing the value that natural and organic processed meats bring to their customers and to their bottom lines,” says Chuck Fletcher, chief marketing officer for Coleman Natural Foods. “They do not want their shoppers to have to visit other retailers to find natural and organic products.”
A gourmet chicken sausage product was on the market when Hans’ entered it, but Hans’ offered a new option by providing an organic chicken sausage that eliminated all hormones, antibiotics and artificial ingredients. Gourmet sausage makers had used only spices, such as Cajun, for different flavor profiles.
Hans’ took traditional sausage ingredients and married them with fresh-from-the-field produce, such as leafed basil, cilantro, spinach, and fire-roasted garlic. The brand was the first in the U.S. to transport fresh, raw chicken sausage to either coast without freezing, using modified-atmosphere packages. Demand appears to be on the rise for fully cooked organic chicken breakfast links available under both of Coleman’s brands.
Empire Kosher Poultry Inc. in Mifflintown, PA, introduced chicken sausage in April 2005, reports Neenah Lauver, product marketing manager.
He says “distribution has grown to all regions of the United States, and the sausages are authorized in all major supermarkets.”
The basic processes for Empire’s chicken sausage are the same as for other kinds of sausage, says Stan Wallen, director of QA & food technology for Empire.
“We have less of an issue with fatting out since our products are so low in fat,” explains Wallen.
Murray’s Chicken, headquartered in South Fallsburg, NY, is renowned for the exceptional quality and extraordinary taste of its all-natural chickens, according to Steve Gold, vice president of marketing. No gluten, preservatives, MSG, artificial flavoring, or coloring are needed to enhance the distinctive taste of these sausages. Murray’s uses a pork skin casing for its chicken sausages, Gold reports.
The 100 percent all-natural, antibiotic-free sausages are made from Murray’s skinless chickens and feature flavors derived from fresh, healthy, natural ingredients, such as spices, cheese, herbs, and vegetables. NP
Sandy Parlin is a freelance writer from Chicago.