FRESH FOOD: Poultry Update: Taking flock

Poultry's pulchritude has been put to the test in recent months, amid fears of an outbreak of the avian influenza strain that has infected millions of birds throughout Asia and parts of Europe. But consumption has held steady here in the United States, and the domestic chicken industry's going to do its best to make sure consumer worries don't crop up to reverse its gains.

Chicken continues as a protein staple with strong appeal to U.S. consumers. Americans gobbled up an estimated 85 pounds per capita last year, vs. 84 pounds in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

Better still, if the current trend carries on, the Washington-based National Chicken Council foresees even more consumers migrating to chicken this year, with per-capita consumption estimates pegged to reach as much as 90 pounds.

In the face of chicken's popularity, however, the highly publicized avian flu issue has cast an air of uncertainty over the U.S. poultry industry. On the "AI" case for the better part of two years now, the industry has worked diligently to hammer home the point that cooked poultry is not likely to be a threat.

The United States has not seen a single case of avian flu caused by the deadly strain that has appeared in Asia, but the domestic poultry industry's prudent unveiling recently of an expanded voluntary testing program makes it clear that producers are not willing to take any chances when it comes to reassuring folks that U.S. chicken is safe to eat. The latest changes build on multiple barriers that already exist to protect domestic and international consumers of U.S.-produced chicken products.

While it's far too soon to project the full effect of the expansion in testing, it's certain that the new layer of precautions can't hurt, particularly on the consumer front. Numerous surveys conducted late last year found many Americans mistakenly believing they could contract bird flu by eating an infected chicken. Nonetheless, such concerns haven't slowed consumption overall, thanks largely to the industry's proactive positioning, appetizing price points, and steady innovation.

With retail price declines in recent months, due to strong production levels and a weakened export market, chicken stands as a relative bargain for American consumers at a time when other outlays, such as higher energy costs, loom this winter.

"Chicken demand remains very good," says Dan Emery, v.p. of sales and marketing for Pittsburg, Texas-based Pilgrim's Pride, the nation's second-largest poultry company.

Emery notes demand has shifted in recent years, however, in line with preparation habits that call for products that cook faster and require less prep time. This trend gives boneless, skinless breasts a leg up with more consumers, "regardless of what the economic environment is."

Another trend Emery points to is increased demand for natural products, to which Pilgrim's Pride has been responding with product development. Most recently the company unwrapped new packaging to highlight Pilgrim Pride's "100 percent natural" attributes. "Our new package is also bilingual, because as the population becomes more diverse, it's very important to concentrate on different demographic groups, and obviously the Hispanic population is growing dramatically," adds Emery.

Greta Janz, marketing director at Livingston, Calif.-based Foster Farms, agrees on both counts. "One of the strongest trends we've observed is consumers' increasing demand for natural products," she says. "Our response has been to continue to adhere to our commitment of keeping our fresh chicken products fresh, with no added preservatives or sodium. Also, based on this trend for natural products, we are proud to offer consumers and retailers locally produced organic poultry from our Coastal Range Organics brand, which continues to experience strong sales growth."

Other trends reflect the changing demographics, adds Janz. "Our research shows that Foster Farms provides Latino consumers what they want in a fresh poultry product line," including all-natural fresh poultry that's locally grown.

The way we eat chicken is also being enhanced through extensive R&D on behalf of the industry's key players, in the form of new products and value-added advancements, says Pilgrim's Pride's Emery. Five years ago mass production of prepared chicken was little more than dip-and-fry, he notes. "Now we're grilling, glazing, baking, and roasting." The branded side of the business, he adds, "will continue to get stronger. Consumers want to know where their product came from, and as they become more and more inquisitive, they can put more and more confidence in a brand, vs. one of an unknown origin."

Mindful that consumers are bombarded with countless advertising messages daily but have limited time to evaluate the many products now available in the supermarket, Pilgrim's Pride aimed for crystal clarity when launching its EatWellStayHealthy product line, "which tells consumers clearly and instantly what they get when they make a purchase," says Emery.

"This product line also may well be establishing a higher standard for the poultry industry," he contends. While other poultry companies currently carry the American Heart Association seal of approval on their packages, "we haven't seen any who claim the USDA-regulated word 'healthy' on their packages." Yet while all eight EatWellStayHealthy choices prominently display the AHA's mark of approval on the package, the nutritional requirements -- specifically in the areas of fat, cholesterol, and sodium -- for the USDA-regulated word "healthy" exceed those used by the AHA, he says.

Citing consumers' desire for more convenience, Foster Farms' Janz says, "Our Thin-Sliced Chicken Breasts cook quickly and are a perfect choice for family meals, while our individually wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breasts (Fresh & Easy) are also a consumer favorite."

Foster Farms' revamped Web site is proving to be a great tool for helping the company stay connected with consumers. Packed with hundreds of delicious recipes, cooking information, tips, and tools, along with nutrition news and advice, the site is an informative resource for both consumers and customers alike, according to Janz.

"We've worked closely with our retail customers to develop innovative in-store merchandising and in-store recipe and coupon programs which focus on key seasons, including summer grilling, healthy eating, and holiday entertaining," she says, noting three major retail promotions conducted by Foster Farms annually.

Talking turkey

With consumers' growing desire for nutritious foods that also taste good, the turkey industry has followed chicken producers' lead, providing an increased number of easy-to-prepare products "not only for the meat case, but also in the deli and frozen food case, too," notes Sherrie Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Turkey Federation (NTF).

At presstime NTF was in the final stages of preparing for its annual convention Feb. 8 to Feb. 11 at the Royal Pacific Hotel at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., at which Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns was on deck to deliver the keynote address.

"We're extremely honored to have the Secretary of Agriculture join us at our convention," says NTF chairman Pete Rothfork. "His speech will come just a few days after President Bush unveils his budget proposals for the next fiscal year, and we anticipate that the secretary will be able to give us a preview of how the administration's priorities will affect our industry."

Under the theme of "turkey taking center stage," the trade organization will focus its continuing efforts on enhancing turkey's position among protein choices for consumers.

NTF's recently concluded "Perfect Protein" media campaign produced favorable results, says Rosenblatt. Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of those who recalled the ads' messages said they were more likely to eat turkey as part of their lunch in the next week. "The positive results from research done on the advertising also found that more than half [55 percent] of the respondents who recalled seeing the campaign indicated that they were very likely to eat turkey for dinner in the next week," she adds.

With limited funding, NTF was able to generate not only some awareness, but also purchase intent attributable to the advertising. "Promoting turkey as the perfect protein, with 8 percent more protein than beef or chicken [and] with no saturated fat, has created a memorable message that resonated with consumers," says Rosenblatt.

In 2005 NTF ran ads in 10 leading women's consumer lifestyle publications from April through October, aiming to raise awareness of turkey's high-protein, low-fat, and low-calorie nutritional profile and drive consumers to the organization's Web site for more information. "Along with consumer advertising, which reached about 38 million in circulation, we had a very successful campaign that also featured a companion PR program and satellite media tour," adds Rosenblatt.

For 2006 the campaign will be done a bit differently. "We'll keep it Internet-based and likely discontinue consumer print ads," she explains, in favor of targeted public relations and Internet-based messaging, which NFT found to be "really good tools" for a cost-effective '06 program.

"There's a lot of really great information on our Web site, and although it's specifically designed for consumers, it's also appropriate for retailers to use and thus encourage their customers to utilize it as a resource, either by linking it to their own Web sites [or] utilizing related information from our site in their newsletters, ad circulars, and so forth."

As the turkey industry continues to penetrate deeper into consumers' mainstream culinary repertoires, Rosenblatt is pleased to see more retailers moving to discontinue free holiday turkey promotions in favor of "realizing that this is a premium product that deserves respect not only at Thanksgiving, but all year long."

On the emerging product front, turkey tenderloins are making additional inroads in grocers' meat cases. Among the latest flavored, marinated category entries is a pair of new varieties from Minneapolis-based Cargill Meat Solutions' Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms brands. Zesty Italian Herb and Creamy Dijon Mustard, set for launch March 1, will join the other existing choices in the Cargill turkey division's marinated turkey tenderloin line: Teriyaki, Rotisserie, Homestyle, and Lemon Garlic.

"Always juicy and tender, Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms marinated turkey tenderloins provide a delicious alternative to pork tenderloins," says Chris Seib, Cargill's turkey case-ready products brand manager. Further, "[T]he attractive new packaging makes the marinated turkey tenderloin products even more appealing in grocers' meat cases," he notes.

In addition, the vacuum package features an attractive, full-panel photo of the prepared tenderloin, with the colorful brand treatment on one side, while the reverse is clear, says Seib, thus allowing a full view of the product for the consumer. The marinated tenderloins are but one of many Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms case-ready turkey products, which also include turkey breast cuts, ground turkey, turkey sausages, and turkey bratwurst.

Although the natural and organic segment continues to remain a niche market, it's become decidedly more important of late, and is now one of the most promising growth categories around the perimeter. Tamaqua, Pa.-based Koch's Turkey Farm, whose free-range birds are sold nationally at Whole Foods and other natural food stores, is just one of many small and midsize poultry companies around the country that are experiencing brisk business with their all-natural product lines.

'Accidently' all natural

Late last year the all-natural vegetarian-fed, antibiotic- and preservative-free poultry producer Koch's launched a brand identity campaign featuring a new logo designed to emphasize the company's 50-year reputation for quality. Supporting the branding will be a new Web site, product packaging, in-store collateral, promotions, signage, and electronic newsletters.

Reflecting on his family company's "accidental" entry into all-natural free-range and organic poultry, company president Duane Koch says his initial skepticism about the segment's potential has since been put to rest. "We got into this by accident about nine years ago, when the mad cow issue began heating up heavily in Europe," he recalls. Around the same time, one of Koch's key customers -- Applegate Farms, a Bridgewater, N.J. company that produces antibiotic-free deli products -- made a request for the company to switch its production methods. Koch's decided to take the leap and begin raising a more natural product, which Koch now credits with saving his family farm.

The next stage came in 2003, when Koch's switched its turkeys to an all-vegetarian diet shortly after Canada's mad cow disease discovery prompted the U.S. government to ban the feeding of animal byproducts to farm animals.

"We were getting a lot of phone calls from customers asking if we used animal byproducts in our feed," says Koch. "As the calls continued to increase, we started looking into the feasibility of using all-vegetarian formulas with no antibiotics or growth hormones. Even though it took us four years to break even, we were small and really struggling, yet we were also looking for a niche. We went from 90 percent frozen products to 90 percent fresh."

Koch says he hasn't looked back since. His company was recently awarded Pennsylvania Preferred status by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, a designation that means at least 60 percent of its raw materials were grown and harvested in Pennsylvania, or that 100 percent of the final manufacture processing and packaging was done in the state.

Earlier this year Koch's scored a perfect 100 percent on the 2005 Turkey Welfare and Humane Practices independent audit conducted by Charlotte, N.C.-based Steritech, one of the premier providers of food safety and quality assurance services in North America.

Packing it in

Fresh poultry packaging advancements are also giving consumers something to crow about, thanks to developments brought forth by such stalwarts as the Cryovac division of Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air Corp., whose latest offering presents versatility for meal preparation and easy storage.

Developed in collaboration with a key customer, the saddle-pack-style package configuration was extensively field-tested to great acclaim.

Made from a special Cryovac breathable rollstock thermoform film that can also be configured into a lay-flat format, this saddle-pack poultry package consists of six perforated pockets enabling consumers to easily separate portions for meal preparation, a boon for small families and empty nesters. The consumer selects the amount of poultry -- each pocket contains two pieces -- needed to prepare a meal, and the remaining portions can be refrigerated or frozen in the original packaging and stored for later use. There's no need to rewrap the product, and its vacuum packaging protects the food from freezer burn.

The saddle pack is a hermetically sealed multiunit vacuum package that's leak-resistant, ensuring fewer leakers throughout distribution and in the retail case. Thus poultry cases and checkout scanners stay cleaner and more sanitary, and shoppers don't have to handle wet, sticky packages. An additional benefit for shoppers is a clear view of the product through both sides of the package.

Easy-open options are available to enhance consumer convenience, while graphics and cooking information can be printed on the nonforming top web in up to eight colors, giving the package outstanding retail appeal. The saddle pack is suitable for both bone-in and boneless poultry portions.
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