If steaks and chops are the flashier cuts, and plant-based proteins are the attention-seeking upstarts, sausage and ham are the stalwarts of the meat case. Staples of diets dating back centuries, these proteins are familiar, versatile across dayparts and, at least compared with more premium meats, affordable at a time of skyrocketing food prices.
While these products are mature and considered core items by grocers, manufacturers have been working on innovations in recent years, driven by consumer interest in a greater range of flavors and formats. There has even been a bit of borrowing from both the flashier and upstart kind of meats, with more premium sausage and ham offerings, and even some plant-based alternatives.
Creativity Takes Shape
In the sausage segment, many innovations have taken the form of, well, new forms. Standard links and patties may still reign, but various processors have come out with their own takes on sausages.
Category leader Johnsonville Foods, of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., now offers strips that resemble and cook like bacon but are made from sausage. That item won a best new product award from Toronto-based BrandSpark International in 2021, based on a national survey of nearly 15,000 U.S. shoppers.
In that same mashup vein, Westminster, Colo.-based Niman Ranch recently unveiled a breakfast sausage made with applewood smoked bacon. That variety is part of Niman Ranch’s newer line of fresh sausage links.
Some processors are downshifting into smaller sizes, which are appealing to consumers for reasons ranging from portion control to smaller households to a desire to trim costs. North Country Smokehouse recently added a new organic ham steak and a “petit ham” that weighs just over a pound and serves four.
“Consumers want convenient, modestly portioned pack sizes, and that’s hard to find in the ham category,” explains Mike Kelly, VP of business development and national sales for the Claremont, N.H.-based company. “Couple that with the limited options available in the non-GMO, organic and Certified Humane protein category, and it was clear to us, we had a winner.”
When venerable beef processor Schweid & Sons, of East Rutherford, N.J., recently decided to get into the pork category, the company opted for a smaller patty size for its fresh breakfast sausage. The premium patties are 1.5 ounces each and sold in a 12-pack.
Meanwhile, given the continued popularity of high-protein diets over the past few years, snacks made with sausage and ham represent different ways for people to enjoy cured or processed meats.
Earlier this year, Johnsonville revealed that it was testing a line of summer sausage sticks, available in original, beef and garlic varieties. Johnsonville’s sausage sticks, piloted in Circle K convenience stores and select Walmart locations, sell for $1.49-$1.79 each and are also available in eight-stick pouches with a suggested retail price range of $7.99-$8.99.
“Making delicious sausage has given us a way to deliver against consumers’ growing demand for portable, protein-forward snacks that taste good,” says Brand Manager Jackie Hendricks. “Through consumer and product research, we’ve seen excitement for a more snackable version of Johnsonville summer sausage, which has been preferred over other mainstream meat snack competitors.”
Sausage and ham are also common ingredients in co-packaged products, including high-protein snack kits and still-trendy charcuterie kits. For example, Oceanside, Calif.-based salami company Olli Salumeria has added a new pepperoni sausage and mozzarella snack kit, complementing its line of other salami and cheese pairings. Also in the snacking arena, the venerable Smithfield brand, of Smithfield, Va., came out with a Meat Lovers Power Bites product, made with sausage, bacon, ham, eggs and cheddar cheese, which can be heated in the microwave in under a minute.