Case-ready meat products are here to stay. "Most retailers have, in one form or another, some type of case-ready packaging," says Huston Keith, president of Keymark Associates, in his presentatnion at this year's Annual Meat Conference. Ground beef is now the largest volume product in this category, having surpassed pork in the past three years.

So, what's case-ready meat's big draw for retailers? Many believe it's because case-ready meats cut the retailers' costs. But Keith says this might not be the true test. "We talked to about 50 retailers representing 30 percent of U.S. meat sales, and cost savings is not a big issue," he notes.

Food safety is a top concern. Most retailers felt more comfortable by not handling meat in the store. Of course, this places much of the food-safety responsibility on the packer. Still, retailers do need to provide certain important precautions, such as implementing proper meat-case temperature controls. Keith adds that retailers perceive packing plants as having better sanitation practices today because of USDA inspections and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point procedures.

But overall, the driving force behind case-ready meat is the ease it provides of keeping products in stock. "With case-ready product, you're always stocked whether it's late at night, on weekends or holidays," explains Keith. "Also, the retailer doesn't have to provide holiday pay or overtime pay. Another factor is, often case-ready options offer a greater variety of products such as extra-lean ground beef or natural products that may be hard to produce in the backroom." The survey underscored that retailers are increasingly having a hard time finding employees – especially in the meat department – because people don't want to take up the craft of meat cutting. " It's not a glamorous job, and wages don't keep pace with computerprogrammers," he says. Therefore, case-ready products give retailers an added piece of mind by helping them keep stocked meat in the case.

Image text: Case-ready meat products in supermarkets have more than doubled in the past three years according to Huston Keith, president of Keymark Associates. Here's a look at the category's past and projected performance. The numbers shown here include all meat and are based upon potential sale of 9 billion packages sold worldwide.