MEAT THE CHALLENGE

Consumers may not know why they don't overcook the pork loin anymore, but if they're happy with the end result -- a perfectly cooked entree -- then that's what counts, retailers said.Enhancing fresh meat and poultry with a solution of broth, a sodium and water solution or a citric acid mixture is not new, but it's gaining ground. In its 2004 national meat case survey, Duncan, S.C.-based Cryovac found

Consumers may not know why they don't overcook the pork loin anymore, but if they're happy with the end result -- a perfectly cooked entree -- then that's what counts, retailers said.

Enhancing fresh meat and poultry with a solution of broth, a sodium and water solution or a citric acid mixture is not new, but it's gaining ground. In its 2004 national meat case survey, Duncan, S.C.-based Cryovac found that 21% of fresh meat was enhanced. Broken down by species, the Cryovac figures show 45% of pork, 23% of chicken and 16% of beef was enhanced. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Centennial, Colo., and the National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa, co-sponsored the study.

Retailers, with their suppliers, have created highly touted private-label lines with some enhancement that makes for a more appealing texture, sometimes more flavor and always a product that's easier to cook, they said. At the other end of the spectrum, there are retailers making a big thing of the fact that their fresh meat contains no added ingredients. Health and diets are another issue. Dietitians over the years have raised concerns that enhanced meats may not be a good choice for consumers on sodium-restricted diets.

Marsh Supermarkets' line of Marsh Signature Pork has other special attributes in addition to enhancement, Dewayne Wulff, Marsh's vice president of meat operations, is quick to point out.

"It's a total program," he said. "The meat comes from one breed of hog. We get it from just six Indiana farmers who raise the hogs for us, and they're monitored. The type of feed, the way the animals are raised are part of it. There's a solution of sodium phosphate added that does not exceed 7% of weight. The solution is to protect the integrity of the product and essentially make it 'goof proof' when it comes to cooking it."

The signature line, launched early in 2001, is featured in Marsh's service meat cases, with product cards and signs calling attention to it, Wulff noted.

"Our signature pork has done very well for us, even better than we had expected. It gives us a point of differentiation and customers like it. I know that shortly after we introduced it, some said they had not eaten pork chops for a long, long time, but now they're eating ours [because they don't dry out in cooking]."

Aside from Marsh's signature pork line, fresh meat at Marsh -- with the exception of particular brands of chicken -- is not enhanced with any additives, Wulff said, but the 67-unit supermarket chain doesn't make a point of telling consumers that.

Nor does Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., call attention to enhancement or tout products as being free of enhancement solutions.

"We have a combination of both [enhanced and unenhanced]. Our pork is enhanced. We think it tastes better and it's goof proof. People tend to cook pork too long and it dries out when they do. We don't have enhanced beef because we don't think it's needed. We do have some chicken breasts that have been enhanced, but for the most part, our fresh beef and chicken are not. It's by species, and only where it's needed. It [enhancement] is fine as long as it's done to make the product better, not to make more money on it," said Alan Warren, director of meat/seafood at the 26-unit independent.

A large, Midwest wholesaler/retailer agreed on both counts.

"It depends, or should depend, entirely on the species, and then on the primal within the species, as to whether it actually needs enhancing. For beef, doing it by grade could make sense. But it's pork that particularly needs it. The pork industry people have succeeded in creating a very lean product, which is a good thing, but it's easy to overcook it and that dries it out," a source at that company told SN.

Like Marsh, some of the larger chains have enhanced at least the pork in their private-label meat lines to make the product more appealing, more forgiving in the cooking process, they said.

Neither retailers -- nor vendors -- are advertising the fact that they're adding a solution to their fresh meat and poultry. Indeed, most say nothing about it at all. Not in so many words, but some are promoting enhanced lines as "moist and juicy" or "moist and tender," for example, and they say results are good.

There is, of course, always the temptation on the part of processors -- and retailers -- to add more enhancement. It certainly brings the cost down, sources said. SN's Midwest wholesaler/retailer contact said he fears the pendulum could swing too far toward enhancing solutions.

"There's nothing wrong with adding a solution as long as people don't go overboard with it. In the early days, I saw ham that had as much as 25% to 35% of its weight in an injected solution. But it didn't work. The level put into fresh meat now is fine at this point. It all comes down to the consumer. If they like it, they'll buy it."

Meanwhile, natural food stores and some mainstream retailers, as well -- such as Harp's Food Stores, Springdale, Ark., and selected Thriftway operators on the West Coast -- are calling attention to the fact that the fresh meat they carry is not enhanced.

Indeed, Harp's -- in Wal-Mart Stores' home state -- has run ads in its circulars and on television that graphically emphasize that the company's fresh meat does not contain added water, sodium or any solution. The ads showed an animated steak attached to a water faucet. The tag line: "Water is for drinking, steak is for eating." Also, slogans in the meat department and on grocery bags said, "No Solution Added" and "No Sodium Added." The 42-unit chain's chief executive officer, Roger Collins, described the campaign at the National Grocers Association's Supermarket Synergy Showcase 2004 earlier this year in Las Vegas. (See "Independents Fighting Big Stores With Meat," SN, Feb. 16, 2004.)

Meanwhile, Kevin Stormans, co-owner of two Thriftway stores in Olympia, Wash., told SN that his meat departments make an ongoing marketing statement, touting their regional, all-natural brands of fresh meat.

Many consumers may be completely unaware that the meat they're buying is enhanced with a solution. Indeed, the meat package's label, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, need only indicate up to what percent of the meat's weight is solution and that message is in small print. However, most retailers are carrying a combination of both.

"It's to the poultry companies' credit that they're now creating packaging that in some way, sometimes by color, distinguishes their enhanced product from their unenhanced," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, Washington.

That is true, too, of the major pork processors, especially if there is a seasoning added, industry sources said.

Sources told SN, too, that the incidence of enhanced product merchandised in supermarkets' meat cases varies greatly from region to region and is not the rule, not yet. Meanwhile, SN's Midwest wholesaler/retailer contact said enhancement, even of pork, is seen less in the middle of the country than it is on the East and West coasts. And beef is the least likely of the proteins to be enhanced, probably because natural marbling makes the cuts less apt to dry out in cooking.