Open and Shut Case
By Lynn Petrak, contributing editor

Case-ready products help processors and retailers with labor situations, safety and profitability.
Many consider case-ready fresh meat a step forward in the merchandising of fresh meat. What it really comes down to, though, is pushing packaging a step backward in the farm-to-plate chain.
Compared to even a decade ago, more processors are creating final packages for fresh meat and poultry in their own facilities, to be shipped to distributors or merchandisers and set directly into the case. What started with fresh chicken and pork and moved into fresh beef now represents a bonafide sea change in the retail landscape.
Rather than a swift or dramatic makeover, the transformation has been gradual in recent years. Influential retailers such as Wal-Mart, with its early interest in and request for case-ready fresh meats, helped get the ball rolling in mid and late 1990s, along with big name processors such as Hormel Foods Corp. and the former IBP (today a part of Tyson Foods). Other processors, including major brands and larger regional packers, have brought packaging back to their operations as well, adding to or replacing their previous shipping methods of fresh beef, pork, chicken, lamb or veal.
At this point in time, case-ready products have penetrated well into the meat case but haven’t taken over a majority of retail fresh meat offerings.
“Eighty percent of intact cuts and 50 percent of ground beef is still done in the back room,” reports packaging consultant Aaron Brody, president of Packaging/Brody Inc.
That said, the case-ready segment is continuing its gradual bloom, and there is probability for further growth. American Meat Institute (AMI), for its part, recently predicted in one of its fact sheets that there is potential to sell nine billion case-ready packages. Meanwhile, the 2004 National Meat Case Study, released by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the Pork Board and the Cryovac Division of Sealed Air Corp. in Duncan, S.C., found that case-ready products grew to 60 percent of the meat case.
The latest National Meat Case Study, set to be published soon by NCBA the Pork Board and Cryovac, found similar expansion from 2004 to 2007. “We’re still hammering it out, but there is tremendous information in terms of what is going on. Among the key findings in packaging, it is interesting to see how case ready has increased all over fresh species,” reports Jarrod Sutton, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board.
Sutton says more processors will continue to take on case-ready packaging because of the myriad benefits to them, retailers and end users. For retailers, he says, case-ready formats are especially efficient.
“A big reason for it is in-stock position. You are much better with in-stock with case-ready versus store-wrapped products,” he points out.
Industry consultant Ken Johnson, likewise, says that case-ready fresh meats solve a lot of traditional and emerging issues for multiple parties. “I definitely think there is more potential in the future for case ready,” he says. “I’m convinced that case ready will be here, and the reason for it is the fact that with the labor situation and the whole point of uniformity and standardization, it plays into that.”
He adds that packaging meat right at the processing plant makes sense for the more popular boneless cuts today, and that such formats ultimately help extend shelf life and guard against punctures or tears or loose fittings that can cause cross-contamination.
Furthermore, case-ready fresh meat products help retailers and, to another degree, consumers because they are more uniform than traditional meat products packaged at the store level. That translates into easier scanning of products and inventory control at the store and cooking consistency at home.
“The biggest thing in the last five years has been exact weight,” notes Dan Emery, vice president of marketing for Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.
Case-ready formats and applications
“Case-ready” is one of those broad terms that encompasses a variety of products and proteins available in various retail outlets.
Vacuum packaging is one example of case-ready packaging commonly used for fresh meat and poultry, used for items such as individual pork tenderloins, turkey breasts, chicken breasts, beef tenderloins and ground beef, among other cuts. In this type of packaging process, all oxygen is removed from the meat, and the products feature a natural reddish purple or dark pink appearance, as opposed to oxidized cuts sold in traditional packaging. Because of the non-traditional appearance, though, there has been a determined need to educate consumers about what they are buying.
Johnson, for his part, sees value in the integrity of vacuum packaging and believes there is a future for many types of vacuum-packaged meats, beyond what is already available in stores.
“There are more options, in some form of vacuum packaging,” he says, noting that in addition to retailers, foodservice operators appreciate vacuum packaged products if they want to cook individual portions at a time.
Another type of case-ready packaging that has been a recent fixture of meat cases, and in all likelihood will be in the future, is modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP). MAP packages feature space between the meat and the sides and tops of the packages — a space that is often flushed with a type of gas like oxygen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide.
The use of carbon monoxide (CO) in low-oxygen MAP for fresh meat and poultry has come under some fire over the years, and as a result, processors tare taking a different tack in whether or how they use such technology (See sidebar).
Some experts believe MAP remains well-suited for meat, because of the longer shelf life, enhanced appearance and tamper proof aspects.
“I think people will continue to explore that and use it in places where it makes sense,” remarks industry consultant Huston Keith, principal of Keymark Associates.
Sutton, too, foresees more options for case-ready or near-case-ready fresh meat. One area he finds intriguing is a recent move back to trays and overwrap that look similar to products consumers are used to but are actually a step closer to the case-ready process. “They are shipped in bags — the retailer cuts them, puts them on the scale and puts them in the meat case,” he explains. “The overwrapped product has a perception of being cut at the store level, which has perceived value to the consumer.”
Trays with overwrap, Sutton adds, also make sense in retail meat cases that are already tightly squeezed. “From a meat manager and employee point of view, MAP packaging requires a lot of space in the meat case. You will be limited in the number of SKUs you can put into that case,” he observes.
Case-ready packaging for fresh meat and poultry allows for more flexibility in merchandising as well. For example, large processors such as Tyson Foods, the Excel division of Cargill and others supply case-ready fresh meat products that can be sold under private label. At the same time, scores of supermarkets and specialty stores have found success with branded case-ready meats, from stalwart names including Hormel, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue and others, as well as creating their own store brand programs.
To that end, an increasing number of processors carry signature product lines that can be marketed as a store brand. National Beef, for example, offers brands such as Naturewell, Black Canyon Premium Reserve, Certified Angus Beef and Certified Premium Beef, to its retail customers. Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions, meantime, offers retailers the Sterling Silver brand.
According to Irion, such case-ready brands of fresh meat are on the rise and likely will remain a dynamic part of the market. “We’re seeing increases in branded products, particularly the retailer’s branded products. A lot of gains in branded products have really come from the store brand,” he says. Further, he adds, although some packer brands carry certain equity, many retailers want to differentiate their operations in a climate of tough competition.
“Supplier brands will continue to be out there, but many retailers today are trying to build loyalty to their store and are very conscious of getting their brand out there,” Irion says.
Johnson, likewise, says that there will be, at least for the short term, a mix of supplier and store brands.
“Who is going to take ownership of this product — will it be the processor’s brand or the retailer’s brand? The retailer wants to maintain some type of differentiation, and case ready plays right into that,” he says.
Whether they are a supplier brand, store brand or private label, case-ready fresh meats are all but certain to be the subject of more refinements and advances in the coming months and years.
“Science will lead the way in development of innovative and safe packaging technologies that meet consumer needs and expectations,” observes Huffman.