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FRESH FOOD: All fired up

Got propane? With the big summer grilling season in full swing, you can almost smell the robust margins generated by a well-stocked, precisely merchandised meat department that fuels the appetites of a growing base of consumers who are increasingly staking claim to appetizing backyard fare.

Whether it's chicken, beef, pork, seafood, or even fresh vegetables, the grilling trend is really cooking, not only in foodservice establishments, but also among home chefs. Research from the Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association finds household ownership of barbecue grills at 72 percent, while 81 percent of families have a grill. An even larger share -- 87 percent -- of families of four or more people fire up regularly.

"Grilling continues to gain in popularity with consumers," notes Bill Roenigk, s.v.p. of the Washington, D.C.-based National Chicken Council (NCC). "People really like the experience of grilling because of the taste, flavor, and convenience aspects," he adds, noting that the cooking technique last year placed as the runner-up behind baking and roasting in a survey on consumers' preferred methods of preparing chicken.

Bold-tasting and smoky flavors like mesquite and hickory, along with robust herbs and spices, have grilling enthusiasts even more excited. Further, as main-course vegetable dishes continue to flourish, meatless grilled specialties such as portabella mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, artichokes, asparagus, peppers, onions, potatoes, and sweet corn are proving to be great additions to summer cookout lineups.

As the National Turkey Federation once again welcomes summer by declaring June "Turkey Lovers' Month," Sherrie Rosenblatt, senior director of marketing and communications for the trade group, says that with society's increasing demand for great food without a lot of work, "it's easy to see why turkey and grilling are growing in popularity. Turkey is more convenient than ever." She notes that a variety of turkey products, like tenderloins, steaks, boneless breasts, and drums, "are all perfect for the grill."

Julie Craven, Hormel Foods' director of corporate communications, concurs. "The grill has become a great resource for cooks across the country as they look for convenient, great-tasting products to prepare. Turkey itself is a hot trend this year for grilling," says Craven, pointing to alternatives for traditional burgers, with product options ranging from cheddar turkey bratwurst to Italian seasoned ground turkey, both made by Jennie-O Turkey Store, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hormel.

National Chicken Month

"Another trend people are looking for is products that offer the great taste of marinated meat without all the fuss and preparation time," observes Craven, noting a variety of flavored tenderloins now being offered to retailers, such as tequila lime, lemon garlic, and teriyaki, "which can be sliced and served on a Kaiser roll like a burger, diced for kabobs, or chopped to top a salad."

Meanwhile the NCC is readying its 16th annual National Chicken Month (NCM) promotion for September. The promotion will encourage consumers to purchase chicken not only because of how well it fits into the low-carb/low-fat dietary shift, but also because of its great nutritional value, according to Roenigk.

Many of the campaign's promotional items, including shelf talkers and other POP materials, he continues, "will emphasize 'low-fat' and 'low-carb' in the tag line while reminding consumers that chicken is the perfect choice for many of today's popular high-protein diets."

"Chicken is a natural choice for consumers concerned about these types of diets," says Sue Quillin, a Tyson Foods v.p. and the NCC's promotions subcommittee chairwoman, who encourages retailers to take advantage of the variety of graphics and POS items available for the chicken month promotion, while also urging them to register for a random $250 drawing on the NCM Web site,

As in the past, according to Roenigk, "The retail campaign will be conducted in conjunction with extensive consumer outreach. Forty million readers of Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and Ladies' Home Journal magazines will find an eight-page insert on NCM in their September editions. The insert will contain recipes and coupons supporting products and food items that enhance the flavor and usage of chicken." In August more than 1,500 newspaper food editors will receive a promotional kit on NCM, with new recipes, photos, and nutrition and grilling information on chicken, he says.

At presstime the NCC was putting the finishing touches on the contents of its 2004 consumer preference survey, which Roenigk says will seek more detailed information about what other attributes consumers look for in chickens they plan to grill, including which cuts -- such as whole birds, boneless breasts, and leg quarters -- are most favored.

"We believe chicken has benefited from the current trends, but we don't know whether the way people are preparing chicken is changing, as well," he says, adding that as grilling continues to gain momentum, "we're seeing a little more interest in rotisserie chicken on the home grill as an alternative to roasting, baking, and traditional grilling methods."

To be sure, Roenigk adds, "Summertime is the right time for grilling, and, as long as the weather stays good, we're expecting a good season."

Strong beef demand

An integrated beef marketing and communications plan focusing on summer grilling is also under way at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Backed by a solid lineup of advertising, promotions, food communications, and public relations, the effort aims to persuade consumers to choose beef when grilling and to use their grills more often.

According to Randy Irion, the NCBA's director of retail marketing services: "We were pleased to see a sustained high level of consumer demand for beef throughout our 2003 Summer Grilling promotion. The meat supply, with beef in particular, was at tighter levels during last summer's promotion. However, as evidenced by strong demand, beef sales were up 3.4 percent vs. total fresh meat sales that were up 1.6 percent on a dollar basis. As further evidence of the strength of the Summer Grilling promotion, beef grilling cuts were up 4.2 percent last summer. We're pleased to see that consumer demand for beef remains very strong. This summer we're building upon the success of last year's promotion."

Based on sustained consumer demand for beef, Irion says the beef industry will continue to encourage retailers to feature and promote beef throughout the summer. "The industry as a whole will continue to focus on providing consumers with a wide selection of quality grilling cuts. We'll be working with several industry partners that will be offering discounts on beef purchases, in conjunction with the purchase of their beef-related product," he explains.

As for what he considers to be the most significant developments currently taking place at the NCBA, Irion says the organization has made a concerted effort to partner with other grocery industry leaders whose products are sold along with beef, especially those items associated with beef grilling cuts. "We feel it's important to make a strong appeal to consumers at the retail level through our strategic partnerships with those that have a strong beef-related message," notes Irion, pointing to successful partnerships with Kraft (A.1. Steak Sauce and Marinade) and Sutter Home Winery that have enabled beef producers to reach out to consumers with promotional offers and a recipe contest throughout the grilling season.

This summer's grilling season, Irion observes, provides retailers with great opportunities for generating incremental sales in their stores by capitalizing on the strong consumer demand for grilling cuts at a time when supplies traditionally increase.

"Our Summer Grilling promotion, running May through Labor Day, works well with different retailers in various markets. For the first time," Irion says, "We'll be providing radio promotional support ahead of the two FSIs --offering $1 off beef with the purchase of an A.1. Steak Sauce or Marinade -- running in Sunday papers with a combined circulation of 42 million on May 16 and June 20." Listeners will be instructed to call in to compete for a prize of a gas grill and cash, he adds, noting that participants will need to save their FSI and recall the headline from the ad. "We'll also be running radio support prior to Memorial Day and July 4, in order to call attention to the Summer Grilling campaign."

As for how grilling can give retailers a sustained lift in the summer, Irion says: "We know that people are looking for food items that they can enjoy. Consumers want to feel good about the foods they're serving to their families, and as we move into summer, consumers look forward to grilling beef outdoors." The NCBA will also participate with other grilling partners in a 12-page pull-out grilling guide put together by the editors at "Midwest Living," Irion says, noting that the insert will be reprinted in Kraft's "Food & Family" magazine, which has a circulation of 5 million.

Grillers are increasingly allotting a larger share of the hot coals to bratwurst, specially seasoned, coarse-ground pork sausage with a rich Midwestern grilling tradition. "Brats are tastier and meatier than hot dogs, and as easy to grill as steak or hamburgers. And when it comes to pleasing a variety of tastes, brats fit the bill," says chef Michael Zeller of Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage, a leading national producer of brats; Italian sausage; smoked, cooked links; and fresh breakfast sausage.

Noting that households across the United States are steadily increasing their use of fresh bratwurst -- a trend evident in all age groups and regions -- Zeller says brats are great party food: "Grillers can fry up a variety of flavors and serve in traditional Sheboygan style -- on a crusty roll with toppings such as onion, sauerkraut, mustard, or horseradish -- while adventurous outdoor chefs may choose to use brats in a variety of inventive ways." Johnsonville has developed a large grill-friendly section on its Web site,

Higher pork consumption

Overall the pork industry is poised for a solid summer selling season, says Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board. "Remarkably strong meat demand has been the driving force for fresh pork thus far in 2004. Pork prices have been significantly higher all year, while U.S. pork production has exceeded that of 2003 by 3.8 percent, year to date," she notes.

While U.S. pork exports have been strong -- 21 percent more than in 2003 through February -- Boillot says the growth in U.S. production has also allowed pork consumption in this country to grow in 2004. "Higher consumption and higher prices can only mean one thing: higher pork demand. The University of Missouri estimates that pork demand for January-March 2004 is 5.3 percent higher than for the same period in 2003," she says, adding that beef and chicken demand are higher, as well.

Pork producers, through their investment in the Pork Checkoff, are working to promote the use of U.S. pork both here and abroad. The Pork Checkoff is collaborating with the U.S. Meat Export Federation, which conducts promotions in many countries, including Canada and Mexico, both of which showed the largest increases in purchases of U.S. pork during the first quarter. Japan also bought more pork during the first quarter of 2004 as compared with the same quarter of 2003.

In an effort to boost domestic demand for pork, the National Pork Board has launched a new campaign to promote the meat as a protein solution for people on low-carbohydrate diets, while also continuing its long-standing promotional activities with retailers and restaurants.

Regarding the price outlook for meat in general and pork in particular, Boillot says it's "very dependent upon whether the current level of meat demand persists. Today's demand is built upon several variables, including the current success of low-carb/high-protein diets, consumer desires for more flavor, and the current economic recovery." While industry observers believe that these factors are here to stay to one degree or another, Boillot says most analysts don't think meat demand will remain at the current level: "Stronger demand? Yes. This strong forever? Not likely."
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