PANEL SEES MEAT SHIFTING TO PLATE'S EDGE

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- Meat's role in society is changing, and so must its role in supermarkets, to respond to outside forces ranging from food safety to environmental activism, said a panel of retailers at the National Broiler Council Marketing Seminar here.The meat executives named what they perceive to be the top challenges to their business and presented some savvy ways of dealing with them.The panel

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- Meat's role in society is changing, and so must its role in supermarkets, to respond to outside forces ranging from food safety to environmental activism, said a panel of retailers at the National Broiler Council Marketing Seminar here.

The meat executives named what they perceive to be the top challenges to their business and presented some savvy ways of dealing with them.

The panel included Fenton Corker, director of meat and seafood sales at Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va.; Steve Dillard, vice president of education, planning and special projects at Associated Wholesale Grocers, Kansas City, Kan.; Jay Kitzmiller, meat department manager at IGA Hartville Foods, in Hartville, Ohio; and Joe Moore, director of meat operations at O'Malia Food Markets, Carmel, Ind.

Kitzmiller of IGA Hartville Foods told attendees that "I have learned that with change comes challenge." Changes outside the meat department affecting consumers' eating habits are creating a situation where meat products are no longer always the main ingredient; for example, a stir fry or pasta dish might contain a small quantity of meat just for flavor.

That means retail meat executives are being challenged to find new ways to meet consumer needs, Kitzmiller said, sounding a theme that his fellow panelists also touched on. (The comments made by Corker and Dillard were covered in last week's SN.)

Consumers require more information, which the meat department should address if it wants to sell more products. "We need to teach customers how to buy chicken, how to season it and what's the proper way of cooking it so they have a juicy, great tasting chicken breast," Kitzmiller said.

Demand is growing for more nutritional information at the meat case, he said -- and in some cases that information may be affecting consumers' purchases directly. "You'll note today," he said, "that almost every person picks up a pack of bacon and hot dogs and looks at its nutritional value, and sometimes they'll put it back."

Kitzmiller also touched on the importance of how to decide which, if any, branded programs may be right for a retail operation. He noted that it's often hard for small operators to get vendor support in producing signature items.

To face the issue of food safety, Kitzmiller advocated a two-pronged attack focusing on teaching both the in-store sales associates and the consumers about some of the essential rules of handling fresh products.

"Our challenge is teaching the consumer that when they buy a package of chicken on a 90-degree day, they need to realize they can't [put it in the car trunk] and stop on the way home," he said.

Attracting and retaining quality associates is a first step in, among other things, assuring good meat handling at the store level.

"It's hard to get young people excited in the grocery business," Kitzmiller commented, "and we have to strive to be a better company to provide training to keep the associates interested."

Meanwhile, another challenge to the meat business of an operator like IGA Hartville Foods is dealing with growing competition from superstores, chains and restaurants. The way to survive, he said, is "looking the best we can every day and demanding high quality from our suppliers."

Given the essential nature of the retailer-supplier relationship, Kitzmiller recommended partnering with suppliers who help control expenses and increase profits.

According to Joe Moore, director of meat operations at O'Malia Food Markets, "Food safety is our biggest risk. Nothing will do more damage to your business than if people are afraid to shop there."

Since one error could spell disaster, that makes educating consumers and training employees to handle food safely retail's most serious challenge, according to Moore.

He recommended bolstering consumer confidence by establishing brand loyalty and trying to get meat sales to go from a "commodity-driven to a consumer-driven" business.

As Moore sees it, since consumers are more inclined to trust farmers and see them as more humane than processors, retailers ought to gear their advertising, if appropriate, toward linking themselves with the farmers who supply them.

"People do care where the meat comes from and there's a sense that if it's grown locally it must be fresher," Moore explained.

A successful operation, in Moore's view, depends on a combination of brand identification, maintaining a competent labor force and "instilling quality expectations in meat managers."

On a different note, Moore said that the retail industry should be prepared to continue to grapple with animal rights and welfare groups, who exploit what they call the "cruelties" associated with livestock production and claim that a vegetarian diet is more humane.

"If they have their way, we'll be the tobacco industry of the next century," Moore said of this challenge.

Another force to be reckoned with comes from the media, which he said "has never been a friend of the meat industry."

Moore cited what he called its willingness to report releases from animal welfare groups without regard to accuracy and to report what ultimately prove to be bogus incidents of foodborne health hazards like the health scare over bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as "Mad Cow" disease.

What's more, he added, the media "tend to overstate the health risks associated with meat consumption."