Further evidence that you’re now in the beef business and not the cattle business comes from a new National Meat Case Study. The study reveals a growing transformation of the retail meat case and helps confirm consumer desires for case-ready packaging and convenience products.

The study, funded in part by Cryovac/Sealed Air and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and managed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Board, was the second audit of retail meat cases examining how meat and poultry are displayed and marketed. The first National Meat Case Study was conducted in 2002. This year’s study found the linear share of fresh meat and poultry in the meat case had decreased by 6 percentage points, from 69 percent to 63 percent. But an increased share of total linear feet was found for processed meats (sausage, ham and other processed) and heat-and-serve — both up 2 percentage points with ready-to-cook value-added products and self-serve seafood up 1 percentage point each.

The 2004 study added more stores to the audit, including larger-format stores. Auditors, including Texas Tech University, Cryovac Food Packaging Division of Sealed Air Corp. and the National Pork Board, visited major chain supermarkets nationwide to collect information on more than 117,000 packages.

Beef, pork and chicken represent 90 percent of a meat department’s linear feet and 91 percent of packages, according to the 2004 study that consisted of 104 audits in 43 key metro markets. Beef, including grinds, is the top species in terms of linear feet (43 percent) and share of packages (21 percent). Pork occupied 22 percent of packages and 22 percent of linear feet; chicken occupied 25 percent of linear feet and 28 percent of packages. This excludes processed and non-meat items located in the meat department.

The study also confirmed that case-ready products are gaining popularity. Since 2002, case-ready packaging has increased in all major species, now representing 60 percent of total self-service meat-case packages. This is an 11 percent increase over 2002. Poultry (chicken and turkey) has the largest share of packages that are case-ready at 95 percent of all packages. That’s followed by ground beef at 66 percent, pork at 50 percent and whole-muscle beef at 23 percent. Whole-muscle beef cuts saw an 8 percent increase in case-ready packages and ground beef increased by 10 percent.

The study also confirmed that natural products are an exploding meat-industry trend. Overall, 22 percent of self-service packages made a natural claim. Of those, 61 percent were chicken, 9 percent were pork, 7 percent were ground beef and 2 percent were whole-muscle cuts.

Adding value in the meat case is also important for retailers. Heat-and-serve items were available in nearly 90 percent of the supermarkets surveyed. Of those stores, 82 percent merchandised heat-and-serve products with value-added products (instead of with same-species products), creating one location for convenience items. Beef, pork and chicken each occupied 23 percent of heat-and-serve space allocated.

Supplier-branded packages represent 50 percent of the total self-serve packages. This was up from 45 percent in 2002 and was driven predominantly by chicken at 77 percent, turkey at 86 percent and pork at 56 percent. Whole-muscle beef and ground beef remain low at 27 percent and 18 percent respectively.

The National Meat Case Study confirms that consumer needs play a critical role in meat-case merchandising. Increases in value-added products, case-ready products and other efforts to provide variety and convenience for consumers means retailers will continue to place value on quality from their meat suppliers.