Hamming It Up

With ethnic flavors and cleaner products available, the ham segment is undergoing a resurgence

Ham can sometimes seem to be overshadowed by turkey and roast beef in deli departments, but cleaner labels and innovative varieties have meant added attention for this meat category.

 Deli ham’s ethnic flavors are a big drawing card for consumers, says David Brandow, director, international sales, at Piller’s Fine Foods in Waterloo, Ontario. “[Consumers are] being introduced to very traditional types of naturally wood-smoked products.”

Like other deli meats, shoppers appreciate when ham is hormone free, raised without antibiotics and incorporates natural ingredients than products with chemical names, adds Roxanne Johnson, president of RJ & Associates in Houston.

Contract Testing Inc., which conducts sensory evaluation and consumer product testing, with corporately-managed test sites in both Canada and the U.S., conducted two central location product tests to explore the sliced and packaged varieties of deli black forest ham and turkey. It found that packaged Black Forest ham and turkey brands were all reasonably similar in meat protein, ingredients and nutritional labelling. Some test participants called out claims of gluten and lactose free, while others focused on product being a good source of protein or trans fat free.  

The test also revealed some brands that achieved high standards of product performance, and some that didn’t. Standing apart in the crowded space of the packaged deli section means providing the best possible sensory experience, one to which consumers will return, the company reports. It also found varied results in terms of the look and feel of the deli meats. The winning ham and turkey brands had just the right thickness and firmness, while the underperforming slices tended to be very thin and much too soft, wet and floppy.

The Importance of Packaging

As with the other meats, when it comes to packaging ham, it’s largely a matter of being easy to open and reseal, notes Brandow. “The home demographics are getting smaller; the number of people per household is dropping. Couples on their own—or even single people on their own—are driving the market, which impacts the portion size and package.”

Convenience is increasingly king in ham packaging, whether you’re adding efficiencies within the supply chain or making it easier for consumers to put dinner on the table, according to Flairpackaging.com. Other marketing and demographic factors are in play, but convenience remains a major underlying driver of packaging trends in the industry.

Remaining Flexible

That points to the importance of flexible packaging, which is expected to represent most of the industry’s growth over the next few years. 

Leveraging the range and versatility of flexible packaging products can improve the marketability of meats and poultry in almost any form, whether you’re packaging traditional cuts in case-ready materials or offering end users innovative single-serving prepared products for quick meals.  

A trade consulting firm, The Freedonia Group, concluded in its 2017 survey of the industry’s direction that “high-value meat packaging is expected to gain share over commodity alternatives or package formats.” Judicious use of the right meat packaging supplies can help you ride that wave, it adds.

Additionally, the trend to smaller portions and single-serving sizes will create ongoing opportunities for ham in vacuum pouch packaging. 

Vacuum sealing provides raw meat cuts with roughly double the shelf life of conventional overwrapped retail trays, and the low-oxygen environment minimizes both oxidative browning and oxidative damage to the proteins and lipids in meats. 

Vacuum pouches offer significant potential for value-added products targeting consumer interest in convenience, authenticity and artisanship. The printable packaging provides scope for additional consumer appeal, providing the option to add recipe ideas, safe preparation and handling instructions or a compelling brand story, as needed. 

Research bears out that push for resealability; a recent survey from research firm Mintel showed that nearly half (47 percent) of consumers said they purchased lunchmeat in resealable packaging in the prior year. Many deli-meat packages are pegged on recloseability. While resealability and pre-sliced products are key aspects of convenience, versatility is also tied to making things easier for the end-user. Processors are adding more versatility-driven features to ham packages.

William Knudson, professor in the department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University in Lansing, adds that in packaging, the trend is eco-friendly packaging. “This has the potential to reduce the cost for processors, as consumers increasingly prefer minimal packaging. “

Providing the Visual

Then there’s the marketing and merchandising of meats like ham and “evolving developments,” which Johnson describes as “a big deal that warrants serious attention.” Deli beef and ham are traditional favorites that will need to be “reborn, resistance will only waste time.” It’s paramount, she declares, to move forward with great knowledge, creative minds, re-education and strengthen everything in-store and in deli, especially experiential events that stimulate all five senses at once. 

She also encourages diving deeply into signage, digital, social media and mobile promotions with education.

It’s also important where ham is placed, says Brandow. “Depending where it is on the shelf, you can imagine walking into a store that has a 10-foot-high counter, right down to probably two feet above the floor. What’s at eye level is going to catch the consumers’ eye. The other thing that is great for packages is claims, again like antibiotic free, natural, naturally wood smoked, no nitrates added and protein call outs, which are really key right now. People are looking for sources of protein.”

But, of course, proof is in the pudding, which is where techniques like sampling come in, says Brandow. “Especially when it comes to new [ham] products. Getting consumers to try them will help convince them to make the purchase.”At the end of the day, he refers to behind the glass deli counter as ‘like a showroom’ for a car dealership. “In the showroom, you’ve got the top of the line models, but a consumer purchases off the lot. The deli counter is the showcase, and the grab-and-go package format is what they’d buy most often because nobody wants to wait in line at the deli counter. They’d rather say, ‘oh, that looks good’ and then they see it prepackaged, buy it and away they go,” says Brandow. DB