The WHOLE Story
Two out of three consumers—an impressive 67 percent—favor groceries with fewer and simpler ingredients.
That statistic was revealed in, “Nutritional Labeling and Clean Labels in the U.S.: Future of Food Retailing,” a report produced by Packaged Facts. It’s good news for companies that manufacture products made from whole muscle meats, which fall into that “fewer and simpler ingredients” category.
“Whole muscle meats are minimally processed proteins that retain their whole muscle appearance when cooked, sliced and portioned,” says Gerald Lessard, vice president and chief operating officer of West Liberty Foods, a co-packer, private label manufacturer, and foodservice supplier of sliced deli meats and fully cooked IQF products headquartered in West Liberty, Iowa.
And they can be any type of protein. “Beef, turkey, chicken or pork are all varieties of whole muscle proteins,” Robert Longacre, chief executive officer of dried beef manufacturer Knauss Foods in Quakertown, Pa., adds.
Consumers’ Desire for Less Processed Fare Strengthens Market for Whole Muscle Meats
By Kathleen Furore
"We certainly have seen an increase in interest for whole muscle sliced products. The popularity seems to originate from customer interest for minimally processed meats."
—Gerald Lessard, West Liberty Foods, Vice President & Chief Operating Officer
Echoes Lessard: “We certainly have seen an increase in interest for whole muscle sliced products. The popularity seems to originate from customer interest for minimally processed meats. There is a greater perceived health value for whole muscle items.”
The appearance and flavor of these meats also boosts their appeal.
Lessard points out that the meat fibers or ‘grain’ of the meat is visible, making it appear as if the product was sliced at home, while Longacre notes that the texture of the muscle or even fat marbling in the muscle itself is usually visible.
And whole muscle items—navel pastrami, for example—may have a firmer bite than extended or processed meats, according to Lessard.
“The taste, texture and eating pleasure all seem to be high on the attributes associated with eating sliced whole muscle items,” Lessard says.
Characteristics Mesh with Consumer Demand
—Bob Longacre, Knauss
"There is nothing uniform when you’re working with a true whole muscle product…The blade used on the Weber slicer sliced our whole muscle product better than any other slicer we have tested or had in our production facility."
According to the Packaged Facts report, consumers are not only looking more closely at what goes into their food, but also are voicing their opinions and preferences.
“Consumers are becoming more vocal—through social media, focus groups, consumer surveys, and even petitions—about what they want and do not want in their food and beverages,” the report states.
The majority of those consumers also take statements about nutritional content, ingredients and health benefits into consideration when shopping, the report notes. Consequently, they’re increasingly turning to whole muscle products instead of the alternative—what International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA describes “economy meats made from smaller meat pieces joined together with binders and fillers.”
Knauss and West Liberty Foods are among the companies reporting an upswing in whole muscle meat sales.
“We have seen a positive upward trend in the purchase of our dried beef items, whether it be from the deli or meat departments,” says Longacre, who credits the absence of additives as one reason for the products’ popularity. “Consumers today are well educated when it comes to the products they want to purchase.”
The Slicing Challenges
According to the IDDBA, whole muscle meats slice well and work for all slicing requests, from thin to thick.
Slicing whole muscle products, however, presents some unique challenges, since they don’t contain ingredients such as carrageenan, starches, or other non-meat ingredients that help binding and improve sliceability, Longacre notes.
“One of the challenges is each and every muscle is not the same size or shape,” Longacre explains. “There is nothing uniform when you’re working with a true whole muscle product. High speed processing goes out the window.”
“Maintaining precise control of the meat to ensure consistent slice integrity is problematic due to the variability of the muscles being sliced,” Lessard concurs. “Maintaining a consistent slice thickness or slice count while slicing will result in variable finished package weights, which are not desirable in all instances.”
Knauss' fresh beef knuckles are slowly cured for an enhanced flavor.
Whole muscle meats can add taste and texture to sandwiches. Photo courtesy of West Liberty Foods
To tackle those challenges, West Liberty Foods and Knauss rely on Weber, the world’s leading manufacturer of high speed slicing equipment.
“Weber slicers offer the ability to portion control the slicing of whole muscle items by using vision and scanning technology that optimize the slicing process to provide more [consistently] on weight portions,” Lessard says. “Weber slicers also have a wide array of grippers to assist with controlling the muscle as it is being sliced.”
Longacre agrees, and credits the gripper and blade that are part of Weber’s whole muscle slicing system with helping Knauss optimize production of its whole muscle meat items.
“The Weber slicer improves our yield due to its unique gripper,” Longacre concludes. “The blade used on the Weber slicer sliced our whole muscle product better than any other slicer we have tested or had in our production facility.”
Whatever the protein, and however it’s sliced, the case for focusing on whole muscle meats for manufacturers and retailers alike is a strong one—especially when those businesses take time to use packaging and promotions that educate consumers about the benefits of whole muscle products.
As the IDDBA’s “What’s in Store 2016” report notes, consumers are taking more interest in how meat is processed. “As a result, authenticity and transparency are also under the microscope,” the report says. “This is where an educated staff can make a difference. Educating consumers about deli meat producers and the products can build a connection for them and help them to feel invested in their purchase.”
That, in turn, will boost sales—which is good news for deli meat retailers and the companies that supply them.
Says Sherrie Zebrasky, retail advisor of Principe Foods, in a Deli Business story quoted in the IDDBA report: “When someone can explain the pros and why [a product is] healthier to eat, sales are bound to increase.”
Relationships with manufacturing partners are instrumental in helping Busseto and La Quercia achieve optimum quality, appearance and flavor. When it comes to slicing equipment, cutting corners isn’t an option—especially with proscuitto, which must be sliced extremely thin.
In Italy, prosciutto is sliced using slowly run blades, often hand-operated. “That’s the key to correctly slicing prosciutto: if the blade runs too fast (and is not sharp enough), the resulting friction will heat the steel and consequently melt the prosciutto,” information according to livelikeanitalian.com.
“Slicing is very, very, very important!” Busseto’s Pagani stresses. “The quality [of the prosciutto] depends on slicing, and on the quality of the pigs, what they eat, their age, how they are killed. You get good results if all those things come together without cutting corners! There are little tricks that if you know them, they’ll solve the problems. The Weber slicers are wonderful machines, and the Weber people— give them a problem and they will tell you every trick to fix it!”
“It isn’t easy!” Eckhouse says of slicing prosciutto into razor-thin slices, which La Quercia recommends be 1/16” (1 mm) thick or less. “Eating the meat directly off of a hand crank, flywheel slicer is the best eating experience, but not very widely available. We slice thinly and control oxidation immediately by packaging, so that really helps the eating quality.“
That is where the quality and functionality of meat slicers comes into play. Both Busseto and La Quercia rely on Weber products.
Busseto employs Weber’s 602 and 604 slicers for slicing prosciutto, which Paul Gillum, vice president of operations, says must be less than 1 millimeter thick. “Those machines are designed to slice prosciutto that thin—they have four rotations to one slice,” Gillum says. “They are actually slicing very fast, but due to the Weber technology, they allow us to have quality slices and still attain the volume and efficiency needed to satisfy our consumers' demand.”
Weber’s 604 slicer also has an interleaving option that alternates paper with the prosciutto, Gillum says.
They also helped La Quercia’s line workers and supervisors understand why the machine’s enhanced computerized control were improvements over the previous slicer. “This helped us improve efficiency,” Eckhouse notes.
The Secret’s in the Slicing
“Weber has been great to us— they have been able to take their technology and apply it to the packages Busseto customers are asking for,” Gillum enthuses, noting customers want a high quality product that is easy to peel and eat while keeping the old world flavor and texture they desire from a quality prosciutto. The slicers’ ability to work with Busseto’s speed loader, also from Weber, is an important plus. “You put a piece of prosciutto on the speed loader's conveyer, it slices the meat, shingles it out, weighs it, and puts it into packages,” Gillum adds.
La Quercia, too, has been impressed with Weber’s slicing equipment and customer service. When the company bought a new 404 slicer in July 2014, Eckhouse says tech service employees “worked with us well beyond their minimum commitment until they were sure the new machine would operate without problems in our environment."
And it wasn’t just tech service employees who weighed in with assistance. When La Quercia asked Weber to review the original gripper and downholder recommendations, Norbert Muehlich, Weber’s vice president, stepped in.
“He got personally involved and identified several opportunities for improvement that together reduced the size of our slicing ends by half,” Eckhouse recalls. “Overall, the support in helping us get the full benefits of the change to the larger, more advanced new slicer were thorough and complete.”
With the popularity of prosciutto and other artisanal meats on the rise, the future for the category—and for companies involved in any aspect of specialty meat production—appears bright.
“This segment has grown a lot. I think we'll see large companies try to reposition some of their offerings and try to make them look artisanal,” Eckhouse concludes. “I think we'll see foreign producers want to take part; I think we'll see new entrants and I think some of the early entrants will continue to grow.“
Weber Slicer 404
Weber Slicer 604