The Meat-le Ages
By Maria Pilar Clark
The meat snacks category has come a long way since medieval times and will continue on its current growth trend, outpacing many other snack food segments.
Meat snacks have been around for centuries. In fact, they might be one of the oldest types of snack foods in existence. After all, the basic curing methods for their creation — salting, aging and drying — date as far back as the Middle Ages.
Primitive meat-loving carnivores endured early-onset TMJ (temporomandibular joint pain) from gnawing on what looked like thick strips of bark with about as much flavor as a piece of cardboard. Fortunately for modern day beef-eaters, the meat snacks category has undergone an evolution process worthy of Darwin’s praise, with meat snack producers developing more palatable snacking options with flavor, value and, most of all, consumers’ jaws in mind.
No Bones About It
The meat snack business in North America is far from being all dried up. Although meat snacks have been a main munching staple for ages, they are now available in a wide range of new varieties and venues. Moreover, with high-protein dieting and a carb boom sweeping the nation, meat snacks have become trendy.
(52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2005)
Rank Brand Dollar Volume (in millions) % Change Dollar Share
1 Baken Ets $27.5 -30.2 25.9
2 Private Label $10.3 -15.0 9.7
3 Macs $6.7 -9.2 6.4
  TOTAL* $106.3 -21.5 100.0
*Including brands not shown
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc., Total U.S. — F/D/MX (Supermarkets,Drugstores and Mass Merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart)
From a product perspective, the original versions of the trucker-turned-mountain-man standby — beef jerky — have gone up in smoke and now include all kinds of beasts and fowl, such as buffalo jerky, chicken tenders and steak nuggets. Obviously, consumer demand is driving innovation.
“The meat snacks category has demonstrated explosive growth,” says Jeff Fisher, executive vice president, sales and marketing for Knauss Snack Food Co., a division of Fairmont, Minn.-based American Food Group. “In fact, retail dollar sales reached $2.7 billion in 2004, up 11% over 2003. Retail dollar sales have more than quadrupled in the past 10 years — more than doubled since 1997.” 
Meat snacks make up the third largest segment in the savory snack category, according to Fisher, including all distribution channels — grocery, C-stores, mass merchandisers, drug stores, supermarkets, supercenters and foodservice.
“The primary reason for this phenomenal growth is the dramatic expansion and diversification of the meat snacks consumer base,” Fisher explains. “Specifically, the consumer base has extended well beyond the core group of ‘outdoorsy’ men to include men and women across all demographics who are fitness-conscious, dieting, concerned about nutrition, and ‘on-the-go.’”
Fisher notes that added category growth is a direct result of increased retail distribution for meat snacks. Although C-stores traditionally represented the snacks’ primary outlet, today meat snacks are broadly available in channels ranging from supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers to office supply and hardware stores.
Knauss is marketing to consumers who are searching for meat snacks that are portable, low in fat, high in protein and convenient by keeping its products a cut above the rest, with new packaging, flavors, meat forms and sizes.
Aside from its basic varieties — Original, Teriyaki and Peppered Beef Jerky — the company has introduced line extensions that include Sweet Barbecue, Hot ‘n Spicy and Nacho. Knauss also expanded its meat snack offerings in terms of bigger 8-oz. sizes, packaging its Original, Mild and Hot flavors of multi-pack beef sticks into canisters and vacuum-sealed bags. Additionally, the company ventured into different meat forms such as beef nuggets and shredded beef jerky. All of these changes have impacted the meat snack category’s growth.
“The growing retail presence of private label meat snacks has been another factor in the category’s growth,” says Fisher.  
Specifically, meat snacks have become the fastest-growing segment among all private label segments in the salted snacks category. Retail dollar sales on private label meat snacks were up 75% for the 52-week period ending July 10, 2005, according to IRI information, Fisher explains.
(52 weeks ending Oct. 2, 2005)
Rank Brand Dollar Volume (in millions) % Change Dollar Share
1 Oh Boy! Oberto $65.9 -6.5 21.9
2 Slim Jim $50.7 -3.8 16.9
3 Jack Links $44.8 -8.3 14.9
4 Bridgford $21.5 -13.9 7.1
5 Private Label $20.5 +53.6 6.8
  TOTAL* $300.7 -2.6 100.0
*Including brands not shown
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc., Total U.S. — F/D/MX (Supermarkets,Drugstores and Mass Merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart)
Jack Link’s Beef Jerky is reveling in the burgeoning meat snacks’ newfound fame as one of the quickest-growing meat snack manufacturers worldwide. The Minong, Wis.-based company, recognized as the U.S. meat snack market leader in C-stores and mass merchandisers, urges consumers to “Feed Your Wild Side,” with an array of 100 premium meat snacks, including jerky, tender cuts, snack sticks, steak nuggets, beef steaks, beef sticks, beef & cheese, Jack Packs, sausages and much more.
Continual product innovation, new product introductions and exciting flavor developments keep the company ahead of the competition, appealing to a broad consumer base that surprisingly enough includes mothers and children.
According to the company, last year alone, Americans consumed slightly more than half the weight of the Statue of Liberty — nearly 54 million lb. — in Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. To keep consumers’ mouths chewing, Jack Link’s recently introduced new Marinated Tender Cuts in three mouth-watering flavor profiles — Prime Rib, Chicken Fajita and KC Masterpiece Barbecue Pork — which are marketed as meal-time flavors conveniently packaged as a healthy snack. Each is packaged in 3.5-oz. resealable pouches and is available in 12- or 30-count cases or six-count clip strips with a suggested retail price of $4.99 per unit.
“Today’s consumers live fast-paced lifestyles, and snacking occasions frequently replace meal times,” notes Bret Ocholik, vice president of marketing. “Jack Link’s premium restaurant-inspired Marinated Tender Cuts will satisfy consumers’ cravings for flavorful mealtime options while on-the-go.”
These days, consumers have a more sophisticated palate than their ancestors and are searching for snacks that are loaded with bold flavors, spices and zest. Jack Link’s answered the call with its new Chili, Bacon Cheddar and Pepperoni Flavored X-Sticks, which are shaking up the meat snacks category.
Available nationwide, the new X-Sticks have a suggested retail price of $0.99 and are packaged 30 sticks per display, with 12 displays per case. Jack Link’s also introduced an X-Stick 2 for $1, which is conveniently sized at a petite 0.5 oz.
A Cut Above the Rest
For those consumers who are looking for something that’s crispy and crunchy, pork rinds are pushing beefy boundaries with some unexpected product offerings.
Chicago-based Evans Food Group, which calls itself the largest private label pork rind manufacturer on earth, focuses on quality, tradition and new product innovation that has consumers saying “hot diggitty hog!”
Pork rinds are the company’s main claim to fame. They are produced from pellets — cooked pork skins — that are then popped, producing a snack with an appealing texture, crunch and savory bacon taste. Pork cracklins have proved to be another consumer favorite. Similar to pork rinds in terms of a hearty crunch and distinctive bacon flavor, the cracklins are produced from pellets that are thicker and meatier.
Evans has maintained its status as a category leader with new product introductions and package positioning — and by tapping into new consumer segments, according to Alan Sussna, its president and CEO.
Evans has been transforming its Mac’s brand of pork snacks with packaging that has been refreshed to give the line a more contemporary look. As an innovator in the category, Sussna notes, Evans developed several new line extensions to reach changing U.S.-consumer demographics. The new products include Rap Snacks, which are flavorful pork rinds that target a growing African American youth population; La Toñita, pork rinds developed for the taste profile of Mexican consumers; Chacs, a line of pork skins marketed to Caribbean-Hispanic consumers; and Uncle Josh, a line that is focused on the sporting goods channel to coincide with the Uncle Josh line of fishing gear.
“We are providing an opportunity for [consumers] to eat a wider variety of convenient, good value, healthier products that still taste great,” Sussna says.
Rudolph Foods Co. also is experiencing exciting growth in the category as the self-proclaimed world’s No. 1 purveyor of pork rinds and cracklins. With increased consumer demand pushing the company to produce nearly 2 million lb. of pork rinds a week — that’s 100 million lb. a year — Rudolph maintains its broad consumer base by developing on-trend flavors along with larger snack bag sizes.
“As a result of the high-protein, low-carb diet craze, our consumer base has definitely expanded significantly, including a much higher number of female consumers,” notes Rich Rudolph, president of the Lima, Ohio-based company. “Although the market is finding a new level as the craze has faded, we have retained a large number of these new consumers and sales are much higher than before the craze.”
Rudolph offers consumers pork rinds, tender cracklins and traditional cracklins under its Pepe’s, Southern Recipe, Rudolph’s and Grandpa John’s labels, and recently launched innovative microwaveable pork rinds —Bacon Snaps — and pork cracklin strips, both of which are selling well, according to Rudolph. All of the snacks are produced using a traditional family recipe that involves a unique multi-stage cooking process and real hardwood smoke.
Pork rinds aren’t the only crunchy product available for consumers. Oberto Sausage Co. has created a new, unusual product to satisfy meat lovers’ tastebuds — Oh Boy! Oberto Beef Jerky Crisps. That’s right — jerky crisps.
As Oberto likes to say, the snack revolution has arrived. The new crisps are a crunchy oven-roasted snack made with real lean beef and a savory blend of seasonings. Available in three flavors — Original, Smokey BBQ and Sweet Mesquite — this wave of jerky snacks eats just like mainstream potato chips. Consumers can dip them, eat them as a side to their favorite sandwich, or just munch them straight out of the bag. The crisps also are high in protein, low in fat and contain no trans fat.
The meat snacks category has come a long way since medieval times and will continue on its current growth trend, outpacing many other snack food segments. What’s more, they won’t hurt your jaw … if only our ancestors could see us now. SF&WB