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Opportunities in the retail meat case

Seventy retail store visits and more than 21,000 packages of beef later, findings from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s National Retail Meat Case study are coming together. This is the first big-picture view of how the beef you produce is being marketed to Canadian consumers.

“Asking consumers what they would like to buy is not always reliable. The intent of this study is to document what types of beef products are actually being sold to Canadian consumers by national retail chains. Benchmarking key attributes of the Canadian meat case can help guide future strategy development that will support the viability and profitability of the Canadian beef sector,” explains CCA director of technical services Mark Klassen.

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beef on display at a meat counter

The composition of the retail meat case across Canada is changing over time, he says, listing some of the significant influences in recent years. The aging and increasingly health-conscious population, entry of new global competitors, higher beef prices and, by some accounts, growing interest around method-of-production claims, such as antibiotic free, environmentally sustainable, certified humane or organic have all played a part in how beef is marketed.

“Given the investment and time required to implement any changes at the farm level, documenting trends, such as those related to method-of-production claims, is important to cattle producers,” Klassen adds.

The meat case in a nutshell

Beef products had 29.8 per cent of the linear feet, pork had 31.9 per cent, poultry had 25.5 per cent, and other meats had 16.8 per cent. The remaining four per cent was non-meat items or empty space.

Out-of-stock beef items were noted at 20.8 per cent of the eastern stores and 31.8 per cent of the western stores. The average of 24.3 per cent represents potentially lost sales, Klassen adds.

Quebec, followed by Alberta, had the most space allocated to beef. Klassen says it is very likely that beef’s share of the meat case space has decreased in recent years due in large part to higher beef prices. Future surveys will continue to monitor this trend.

The average price per kilogram of beef steak was about 44 per cent higher than for roasts. The price per package for roasts and steaks was highest in Alberta because of the larger amounts of beef per package versus other provinces.

Pricing discounts on beef included feature pricing, value packs and markdowns. Feature pricing applies to all products of that type in the meat case and are often promoted by retailers in their flyers to increase traffic in the store. Overall, 18 per cent of roast packages and 17 per cent of steak packages were featured with special pricing, most commonly in Quebec. Markdowns were only for items near the end of their sell-by dates and were noted on 3.4 per cent of the packages. Thirteen per cent of stores sold roasts and steaks in larger-quantity value packs, with steak in value packs being more common in the West.

Beef product mix

In both regions, steaks were by far the top cut, accounting for 50.3 per cent of the packages. Ground products followed at 23.9 per cent, being slightly more common in the East (25.6 per cent) than the West (20.3 per cent). Roasts followed at 9.0 per cent. These three categories made up 83.2 per cent of the beef packages.

The remainder of the beef mix included cubes (6.7 per cent), organ meats (3.2 per cent), ribs (2.4 per cent), strips (2.3 per cent), sausage (0.3 per cent), and other (1.9 per cent).

Klassen found cubes an interesting category. In the East, 7.4 per cent of the packages were cubes, nearing roasts at 8.1 per cent. Cubes and strips together accounted for 9.0 per cent of the packages. The gap was wider in the West with 5.1 per cent of packages sold as cubes compared to 10.9 per cent sold as roasts. Cubes and strips combined for 6.9 per cent.

Another notable difference was the popularity of ribs out West, accounting for 4.1 per cent of the packages compared with 1.5 per cent in the East.

Approximately 30 per cent of steaks, 37 per cent of roasts, and 56 per cent of ground beef packages were case-ready products cut and packaged outside of the store versus in the store.

Mechanical tenderization to enhance eating quality was utilized for 15 per cent of roasts and 16 per cent of steaks and was significantly more common in Quebec.

Consumer information

Self-serve meat cases accounted for 96.1 per cent of the fresh-meat linear footage. The remaining 3.9 per cent was personal-service counters with a butcher, those being the most prevalent in Alberta. Of the stores visited, 77 per cent had an in-store butcher, but most of those were without a personal-service counter.

Only four per cent of stores had beef items with QR codes that can be scanned with smartphones to view website information. Only 0.2 per cent of beef steaks and no roasts had written website addresses on the packages.

Beef recipe cards were found at 10 per cent of the stores, while those for pork and chicken were at seven per cent and four per cent of the stores, respectively.

Nutritional information (tables and rating systems) was provided on less than five per cent of steak and roast packages.

The most common instruction on roasts and steaks had to do with safe storage, such as “keep refrigerated.” Safe-storage instructions were noted on 75 per cent of roast packages and 73 per cent of steak packages. Safe-handling instructions were on 19 per cent of roast packages and 30 per cent of steak packages. Safe-cooking instructions were on 17 per cent of roasts and 22 per cent of steaks, with descriptive cooking instructions, such as “oven roast,” on 27 per cent of roast packages and 25 per cent of steak packages.

Some stores had general signage about grades, although the relationship between the signage and products was sometimes unclear, therefore, grading information was recorded only if it appeared on the package. There was no grading information on 55 per cent of the roast packages, most frequently in Quebec and British Columbia. Grading information on roasts was most common in Alberta. When grading information was on the package, it was most often for Canada AAA. The trend was similar for steaks, with no grading information on 56 per cent of the packages, most often in Quebec. When grading information appeared, it was mostly Canada AAA and most often in the West.

Claims and origin

Forty-three per cent of roasts and 44 per cent of steaks were identified on the label as “Canadian” or by province. Considering the relatively small amount of imported beef used for retail steaks and roasts, Klassen says it is quite likely that the percentage of each originating in Canada fluctuates around double that amount.

Less than one per cent of roasts and less than one per cent of steaks were identified with U.S. origin and all were in Ontario stores.

Of all roasts, 55 per cent of the packages had no identified origin and two per cent had information that wasn’t clear. Of all steaks, 51 per cent of the packages had no identified origin and 3.8 per cent had information that couldn’t be classified. Nearly 13 per cent of all steak packages promoted a Western Canada origin.

Traceability claims were the most common cattle-production attribute noted on packages, with nine per cent of roasts and eight per cent of steaks carrying this claim.

Less than two per cent of both steaks and roasts carried claims related to animal diets. The most common claim was for corn fed, followed by grass fed and then grain-fed beef. The claim of fed “no animal byproducts” was seen on 2.1 per cent of steak packages and 1.9 per cent of roasts.

Organic status was noted on 1.1 per cent of roasts and 0.9 per cent of steaks; “antibiotic free” on 2.6 per cent of roasts and 3.9 per cent of steaks; “hormone free” (a claim technically not permitted) on 0.5 per cent of roasts and 0.3 per cent of steaks; “no hormones added” on 2.7 per cent of roasts and 4.2 per cent of steaks; and “certified humane” on 1.9 per cent of roasts and none of the steaks in the stores surveyed.

Overall, 1.2 per cent of roasts and 1.3 per cent of steaks were identified as halal, while no roasts and 0.3 per cent of steaks were identified as kosher.

“While consumers may say they prefer these non-traditional product categories, the volumes of these types of product currently being sold at the retail level are limited,” Klassen says.

Klassen shares two standout points from the initial summary of this small part of the extensive dataset collected for the National Retail Meat Case Study.

“There are significant regional differences in beef product mix and merchandising approaches across Canada. While some of these differences may genuinely reflect regional differences in demand, there is certainly an opportunity to examine how products currently successful in selected retail banners and/or cities could be helpful to building volume and sales in other locations.

“The findings also support the opportunity for the industry to enhance communication to consumers through information on the package, recognizing that it is the only means of communicating with consumers that is present at both the point of purchase and on the product at the time of preparation in the home.”

The meat case study is part of the retail component of the CCA’s 2014-17 National Beef Quality Audit and was funded by the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, the Beef Cattle Research Council and National Checkoff.

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