Ground Rules

Poultry continues to offer convenience, taste and wellness, and grocers are leveraging treatment and safety concerns.

As busy consumers look for better ways to feed their families healthy, quick and convenient meals, the poultry industry has created products that mirror their lifestyles, and grocers are taking advantage of that.

"People are trading off of ground beef," observes Steve Jarzombek, VP of merchandising for Mariano's Fresh Market in Arlington Heights, Ill., the first store in a new chain being launched by Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets.

In fact, Jarzombek says he's seen the ground poultry section grow significantly over the past three years as the products continue to increase in popularity.

In 2007, the turkey industry saw more than a 10 percent growth in ground turkey distribution, notes Sherrie Rosenblatt, VP of marketing and communications for the Washington-based National Turkey Federation (NTF). "It continues to be a popular item because it is a great upgrade to higher-fat meats in family favorite meals such as spaghetti, lasagna or even meatloaf," she says.

Shoppers are increasingly reaching beyond ground products to even more convenient prepared items. "Products such as fully cooked turkey meatballs and turkey meatloaf, and value-added products like turkey marinated tenderloins, provide a nutritious, convenient, tasty meal without breaking the bank," Rosenblatt adds. "Now more than ever, consumers are also looking for convenience, and pre-cooked turkey kielbasa or turkey sausage is perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner .… [They're among the] items that can be found in the fresh meat case, prepared food section or freezer section of the supermarket, adding a winning combination of taste and convenience."

Sales of fresh turkey in the traditional supermarket channel are down 3.3 percent to about $1.1 billion for the year ending Aug. 31, according to the Perishables Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Fresh chicken sales are down 2 percent for the same period, to just over $5 billion. Overall frozen poultry sales are down 1.5 percent, to about $869 million, for the year ending Aug. 7, according to data from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen.

That may be due to a downward trend in costs. " Wholesale and retail chicken prices, adjusted for inflation, have declined relative to overall consumer prices and major competing meats," Dr. Thomas Elam, an agricultural economist, wrote in a May 2010 report on competition in the chicken market, posted on the National Chicken Council's website. "In the case of white-meat chicken preferred by U.S. consumers, that preference has resulted in innovation that led to increased yields, higher production and lower relative prices."

In any case, the in-store trends have been apparent. "We're selling a lot of flavored [products], like teriyaki," Jarzombek says. "You can buy it for almost the same price [as regular products], so why not? Just throw it on the grill." To enhance the personal kitchen experience for shoppers who don't opt for pre-seasoned products, numerous grocers and industry groups post myriad recipes online as a guide to at-home poultry cooks.

The Washington-based National Chicken Council operates, which features monthly recipes such as Sauerbraten Chicken Wings and Pan Roasted Maple Dijon Chicken with Butternut Squash and Brussels Sprouts. Livingston, Calif.-based poultry producer Foster Farms this year launched a chicken cooking contest that yielded such entries as Balsamic Mushroom Chicken with Honey Goat Cheese and Panko-Crusted Lemon Butter Chicken with Israeli Couscous Salad. Such recipes ought to breed cross-merchandising opportunities for grocers looking to offer their customers tasty and convenient solutions for the evening meal.

"The turkey industry is a branded one, and most of these companies will work directly with their retail partners on positioning the latest turkey products," Rosenblatt explains. "However, NTF members are encouraged to promote NTF's new Meal Upgrade Calculator to educate consumers and retailers on the many health benefits of turkey. There continues to be a variety of turkey products in the marketplace that allows consumers to upgrade their breakfast, lunch and dinner items with turkey."

Healthy Humans, Healthy Birds

In the wake of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity, NTF launched its online Meal Upgrade Calculator, in collaboration with Shape Up America, the healthy-weight campaign spearheaded by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. The calculator shows consumers how to "upgrade" favorite family meals by changing the type of meat and poultry, as well as the sides and condiments, so families can consume less fat and fewer calories.

Rosenblatt says research showed a savings of 6,408 calories a year, or almost two pounds in excess weight, if Americans substituted lean turkey for another protein once a week at alternating meal occasions. An in-store kiosk linked to NTF's online calculator could provide additional help to shoppers at point of sale.

For its part, Garner, N.C.-based Butterball LLC has been playing up the better-for-you aspects of turkey of late by promoting its ground turkey and turkey franks as grilling alternatives to traditional hamburgers and hot dogs. "Grilling staples like a burger or hot dog can be made healthier simply by choosing a leaner turkey product," points out Kari Lindell, Butterball marketing director.

Beyond the personal health aspects of swapping other proteins for lean poultry, consumers are becoming more concerned about the origin of their products. Mariano's Jarzombek sees an increased demand for natural and organic poultry products. "Folks are asking a lot of questions about how the animals are raised," he says.

As such, grocers across the country are boasting about their poultry's pedigrees. Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle notes on its website that the chickens it sells are "raised in a stress-free environment;" fed all-natural, vitamin-enriched soybean meal and corn; allowed to "roam free;" and air chilled for "a cleaner, better taste."

Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Markets, with markets in upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania, trumpets its all-natural, antibiotic- and steroid-free chicken that's fed an all-vegetable diet. Meanwhile, Seattle's Metropolitan Market promotes its "all-natural, Washington-grown, free-range chicken," along with air-chilled organic chicken from Sweet Water Creek. And the Minneapolis-area Kowalski's Markets lists Kadejan Free Range Chicken and Ferndale Free Range Turkey among its meat department partners.

Among poultry producers, Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Inc. recently revealed that it's the first and only chicken company to have U.S. Department of Agriculture process-verified programs, meaning that its chickens are fed an all-vegetarian diet, aren't fed animal byproducts, are raised cage-free, and aren't given hormones or steroids.

New City, N.Y.-based Murray's Chicken has launched several additions this year to its line of antibiotic-free chicken products sold at supermarkets and natural food stores, including seasoned chicken and turkey sliders, nitrate-free chicken bacon, and a chicken soup kit, complete with cutup chicken and vegetables.

Elam's study found that, though numerous in terms of companies, the organic segment accounted for only 0.3 percent of 2008 U.S. chicken production, according to the USDA. "Though still not a major part of total chicken production, production of premium-priced organic and free range chicken has been growing rapidly," Elam wrote. "Entry in this smaller-sized operation segment selling fresh chicken to mainly local markets is apparently a viable option."

All Cooked but the Goose

Other poultry products offer additional convenience aspects to attract the shopper.

Tyson Grilled & Ready frozen chicken breast fillets, and frozen and refrigerated breast strips, are fully cooked and portioned for recipes or adding to salads, soups and sauces. Available in at least five varieties, they are promoted by Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson as being 98 percent fat free with no preservatives.

Perdue recently launched the EZ Open Box and Grip — Tear Bag for its fully cooked turkey breast, making opening easier and safer for in-store deli employees.

Jennie-O, owned by Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, offers its So Easy turkey with gravy microwave entrees in Salisbury and Parmesan varieties.

In fact, cooked products continue to make inroads in the grocery channel. Distribution of cooked white turkey meat grew 6 percent in 2009 to more than 467 million pounds, according to the NTF's 2009 Marketplace Survey.

"The growth of cooked white turkey meat in the marketplace is a reflection of its versatility and excellent nutritional profile," Rosenblatt says. "Not only is it delicious in between two slices of bread, but it's also a great addition to soups and salads and can be extended into breakfast, lunch and dinner."

The survey, released in August, revealed that the top three turkey products produced are whole birds (more than 1 billion pounds), cooked white meat (more than 467 million pounds) and ground turkey (more than 415 million pounds). About a fourth (41 percent) of the turkey volume sold goes to the retail sector. Whole birds make up 51 percent of the volume distributed to supermarkets, followed by ground turkey (19.5 percent) and bone-in breast (7.9 percent).

Following the key trends of convenience and wellness, the latest poultry products should continue to be in high demand. Aggressive grocers would do well to devise creative campaigns to offer their shoppers convenient solutions for making complete, simple and healthful meals, while cross-marketing additional ingredients to benefit other aisles of the store.

"With a continued national focus on child nutrition, the turkey industry will continue to provide nutrient-rich products that are safe, wholesome and affordable," Rosenblatt notes. "The industry will continue to focus on educating consumers on the value of this nutrient-rich protein, while providing various ways for parents and children to incorporate turkey into any meal occasion."

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