Highlights from the 73rd annual Meat Convention

Can you believe that the American Association of Meat Processors has been hosting a real meat camp for 73 years?  That's a lot of meat.  As my wife's relative said when he heard where I was last week, "they have a convention for everything don't they."

This may be true - though I would put a meat convention in a more practical category than the Mermaid Convention, Gathering of the Gargoyles, or even the Xena Warrior Princess festival, although I do love me some Lucy Lawless.  Amongst the billions of animals that are killed for food every year, there are millions of ways to save money, become more efficient, use better handling techniques, and learn new skills doing it.  On top of the intellectual stimulation, it’s great networking and you will try some yummy meat treats.  

And it is both exactly what you think and exactly the opposite of what you think.  If you are imagining an expansive, grand hall filled generously with tables of delectable meat treats in various preparations and preservations, then yes you are correct!  If you are picturing a bunch of old butchers in classrooms calculating price per plastic bag, discussing labeling software, and the latest in smoke generation, then yes you are also correct!

The St. Paul River Center, home of the Minnesota Wild hockey team, held all the participants well, and the scheduling was nice and loose, allowing plenty of time to take breaks, network, relax, and explore the city.  Plus, butchers like their beers, so the morning events were easily skipped - unless you’re a cured meats junky.  AAMP hosted the national cured meats championship with over 20 different cured product categories (this is where the grand hall of tasty treats comes in).  This is what over 1000 cured meat products in one room looks like.

Here are a few important take aways that you may be able to incorporate into your processing or retail operation, or to help you become a better consumer:

1.  There’s more than one way to make a ham.

  • macerated and stuffed hams using your tenderizer and piston stuffer.
  • grind sausage, add ham ingredients, link and smoke - tadaaa, ham links.
  • create three ham items with one pork leg - PIT ham, knuckle ham, ham hock

    What does this mean?  An ability to offer your consumers variety... and actually still sell ham!  Large cuts like ham, turkeys, and roasts can get really expensive.  It is no wonder that folks save these items only for holidays.  Entire marketing campaigns have been made around what to do with a ham when it’s not Easter.  Why not make it easy for your customer, and add value by turning it into something else entirely, and sell it in smaller portions?

    Case in point, my wife and I are using our 7 lb ham to cut up and make this roast pork recipe for taco night with our friends on Friday.  The other half of our ham we sliced into cutlets and made traditional wiener schnitzel last week.  The hocks are probably going to go toward a slow-cooker collard recipe.  Our pig’s leg has just vanished and it was July, not Easter.

    2.  Hispanics are the largest beef purchasers as an ethnic group in America.

    • Hispanics prefer a different, more intimate purchasing experience - they want to interact with the butcher and the meat.
    • Hispanics like very thin cut meat from many of the lower cuts - round, skirt, chuck roll
    • Hispanics are, by ethnic group, the largest beef buyers in America. They sometimes will eat beef four to six times a week and enjoy cooking for and sharing with large groups.  

      Hispanics are the largest minority group in the USA; if you are not considering them in your marketing plan then you are missing a major opportunity.  There are many nationalities that make up the Hispanic group - including from Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Spain - that result in subcultures with very different beliefs, opinions, and consumer behavior.  But there is one common thread that unites them - Spanish.  There are surveys showing that Hispanics respond better to an ad in Spanish... But it is also about loyalty.  You will not be able to simply translate your regular ad into Spanish and voila.  Learn what each of these subcultures like to eat, traditional dishes often prepared, and how to prepare them (and accompaniments if you also sell those in your store).  Then focus on building a relationship and trust.

      3.  Look out, folks, there’s a smoker revolution on the brink!!!  And it’s coming with pellet generators - good bye sawdust.  Pellet generators have:

      • Huge energy savings(operational efficiency)
      • Better yield due to shorter smoking cycles (less liquid volume lost)
      • Heavier, even smoke generation (more consistent product, will taste better)
      • Less cleaning of creosote in pipes and smokehouse(less pain in my ass)

      So, every single thing about pellet generators is better than sawdust?  Well that made my decision easy.  Alleghany Meats is building our smokehouse over the next few months, and you can be sure I will be focusing on pellet generators.

      4.  You can still make more money on NY strip steaks. 

      • Even your classic cuts can be adapted and sold to consumers at a higher price per pound - example: cut a NY strip right down the middle, long ways.  OK stop cringing.  Now tie as you would a roast.  Then slice into NY medallions and sell for at least a dollar more a pound.
      • Do a yield test.  You have to know how much you’re putting into your product, how much it costs you, then charge enough of a mark-up to make your margins, which in many cases should be around 35% or higher.

      Value-added, new fabrication techniques, and “new” steaks are talk of the town right now.  But remember, that there are plenty of people who stick with old reliable.  Whether you’re dressing up a NY medallion or just selling a plain old sirloin steak, you should know how much it’s costing you and how much you’re making off of each one.

      5.  HACCP and record keeping is allll the rage right now (or.. causing intense rage), and technology is here to help you - enter the data logger.

      When using data loggers you can track every temperature change in your product from chilling, to cooking, and back to chilling.  Many loggers now are wireless, submergible, and have an affordable price point.  Don’t rely on charts that may be sloppy or inaccurate; have data that you can point to to show you’re hitting all of your CCP’s in the curing process.  Stick your logger into the ham in the cooler, leave it in throughout smoking and cooling and show you have reached all of the critical limits.  And yes, there’s an app for that.  I can check temps in all my coolers from my iphone and get a message when any one cooler falls above a certain temp range.  If you are worried about cost, think of all the time and headache you’ll save having not to do it by hand - or assign and rely on someone else to remember.

      So there you have it!  Five days of workshops and speakers and you didn’t even have to buy a ticket.  You owe me.