WHERE'S THE BEEF?

Retailers know that shoppers have been paying closer attention to labels during the past few years. In fact, responses to a recent survey indicate that 28% of Americans are reading labels much more frequently today than a year ago. Another 31% of consumers say they are reading labels slightly more often, according to The Hartman Group's Pulse Report: Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective, December

Retailers know that shoppers have been paying closer attention to labels during the past few years.

In fact, responses to a recent survey indicate that 28% of Americans are reading labels much more frequently today than a year ago. Another 31% of consumers say they are reading labels slightly more often, according to The Hartman Group's “Pulse Report: Label Reading from a Consumer Perspective,” December 2007.

For meat departments, this trend has been a mixed blessing. On one hand, a growing number of shoppers recognize certifications — such as Certified Angus, grass-fed or humane-raised — as cues that signal higher quality. And, as SN reported last spring, supermarket tests have revealed that on-pack nutrition labels that highlight B vitamins, iron and zinc seem to help boost beef sales, according to research from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Yet, some retailers say that meat and poultry labels today are becoming too saturated with information and claims. When combined with smaller package sizes, it can get to the point where consumers can't see the product clearly anymore.

“Packaging, especially for meat and poultry, should protect the product, and labeling should not hide it,” said Paul Schmidt, director of merchandising at PCC Natural Markets, Seattle.

“After all legal requirements are printed on a label, there's little room left for other information.”

The concern about label clutter is widespread.

“I've heard this concern that they're beginning to crowd out the product,” said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the Washington-based National Chicken Council. “And they really want the product to be the star of the show, of course. So, it's kind of a balancing act that the companies go through in trying to figure out what goes on the package.”

In addition to basic information such as product size, weight and price, as well as safe handling instructions and statements regarding whether water, solution or broth have been added to a product, processors will soon be required to add nutritional labels as well, Lobb noted.

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act currently applies mainly to packaged foods; however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon require nutrition labeling for meat and poultry products, including all ground or chopped meat.

“Within a year or so, we're going to be required to put the standard nutritional information on packages; it's going to have to be on even single-ingredient meat and poultry packages,” said Lobb.

“So, you're actually going to see an explosion of nutritional information in terms of the standard government-required basic nutritional information.”

According to the 2007 National Meat Case Study funded by Cryovac, The Beef Checkoff and The Pork Checkoff, nutritional labeling on meat and poultry was already on the rise, with 57% of total meat and poultry packages offering nutritional information in 2007, compared with 44% in 2004.

“Nutritional labeling is very important,” said Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the NCBA.

“Twenty-four percent of whole muscle cuts and 77% of ground beef packages today have some level of on-pack nutritional information. That is a pretty strong indication that consumers want that and that retailers are responding.”

David Wright, spokesman for Bellevue, Wash.-based The Hartman Group, agreed that nutrition fact panels are important to consumers. In addition, expiration dates, sell-by dates, ingredient lists, and fat information and calories “are highly rated or recalled by consumers as most important,” he said.

Yet with packages becoming more crowded with information, others questioned whether it may be time to rethink what information really should be required on meat and poultry items.

“I'm wondering if some of the safe handling and other sorts of advice are just becoming so old habit that people don't even look at them anymore,” said Lobb. “I would think that something that's the most effective in terms of marketing would be something that gives the consumer something new, not the same message that's been there for a long time — something new and something useful.”


RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

Lobb praised labels from Yerecic, the New Kensington, Pa., label company, which can be peeled back to reveal recipe ideas, along with pictures of what a finished dish should look like. The labels address space issues while offering shoppers ideas, Irion agreed.

Still, cooking information on meat and poultry packaging declined 2% between 2004 and 2007, with 32% of packages now including this information, according to the 2007 National Meat Case Study.

Despite current challenges with overcrowded labels, Irion said that shoppers were wanting to see more cooking and recipe ideas, and he expects to see a reversal of this trend soon.

“There are people that will put recipes at point-of-sale, or they will occasionally put recipes in their ads, but we do know from our research that the most effective way of delivering a recipe is right on the package,” Irion said.

Bill Price, executive director of perishable business units for Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, said he doesn't understand why cooking information is down, because AFS is “totally committed to this concept,” he told SN.

“We believe it's extremely important, especially on beef, because beef can be and is very technical to cook as opposed to pork and poultry,” Price said.

Lobb agreed that offering cooking information on packages is a good idea, but that the peel-and-stick labels are more predominantly seen on red meat packages than on poultry packages.

“I guess it's kind of a backhanded compliment that it's not as necessary with chicken because it's so easy to cook,” Lobb said. “But we'd like to see more of that, because it encourages people to buy it. You're giving them ideas.”

At PCC, cooking and nutritional information are not included on its meat and poultry labels, but are available over the counter from staff, who are trained to offer personal services and suggestions for preparing any meat or poultry item, Schmidt said.

“Our demo department staff also shares recipes and cooking techniques with shoppers as part of our ongoing in-store demo program,” said Schmidt.

“We do offer a line and label of pre-seasoned meat, poultry and seafood, called Natural Express, that has been very successful, as it takes the guesswork, and just work, out of preparing a gourmet entree.”

BIG MESSAGE, LITTLE PACKAGE

Price at AFS Salt Lake City said he expects the trend of certifications and special messages to continue growing significantly as well.

“Consumers seem to be more aware of certain aspects of protein commodities such as organic, natural, antibiotic-free and hormone-free,” he said.

“It seems as though any concept or marketing ploy that deals with health issues [is] hot. Niche marketing is also a significant factor — such as the connotation of Angus, or Laura's Lean, or Certified Hereford. Although these categories can be small, you can't ignore them, because someone down the road will not.”

One example: Organic meats have remained a small category, accounting for less than 1% of total packages, according to the 2007 National Meat Case Study. The USDA Certified Organic seal, however, has continued to grow quickly off of its very small base, now appearing on 0.7% of all meat packages in 2007, compared with 0.2% in 2004. And packages with natural claims were up 7% from 2004 to 29% in 2007.

Consumers also relate premium food experiences to information about the origins and growing conditions of meat products, boosting the popularity of products that are certified “grass-fed,” for example, said Wright.

“While distinctions about cues to quality in the meat category are still evolving among consumers, they see other premium distinctions signaled by aspects of local, regional and/or recognizable farm names,” Wright said.

“Icons that signal ethical production are still new to the population; less than 4% of the population said in our recent labeling research that they had seen icons like ‘Certified Humane’ or the ‘Marine Stewardship Council’ symbol ‘a lot.’”

PCC voluntarily adds country-of-origin information to all of its meat and poultry labels, as well as how the animal was raised, such as organic, grass-fed or free-range.

“PCC is a natural foods retailer, and our shoppers know that every item in our store has met our strict ingredient standards, so we don't label our meats as antibiotic or hormone-free, unless it comes on the branded label,” Schmidt told SN.

Consumers looking for signs of premium production may appreciate a less cluttered look to the label, with simple ingredient lists that signal elements of artisan, handcrafted production, Wright told SN.

“In our recently released Tinderbox report on premium food experiences, “Understanding the Consumer Redefinition of Quality,” December 2007, we find that smaller, freshly hand-wrapped packages are appropriate for premium meats, and such products should be kept visually distinct from — not mixed in with or right next to — more ‘everyday’ cuts of meat in larger packages.”