* Perfect timing with hog, cattle herd recovery
* Selling points include high protein, less fat
* Brands already branching out beyond meat strips
* New offerings include kangaroo, earthworm jerky
By Theopolis Waters
CHICAGO, Sept 9 With prices for U.S. livestock
on the decline due to larger cattle and hog herds, meat
processors are jumping on the jerky bandwagon.
In recent years, dried-meat snacks have gained popularity as
Americans embrace diets packed with protein and less sugar and
fat. Jerky has overcome its image as a highly salted pseudo-food
found at gas stations and convenience stores.
Meat-snack makers have toned down the fat and salt and now
tout the product's perceived health benefits, analysts said.
"It's one of those things where people think it has a health
halo around it," said Darren Seifer, analyst at market research
firm NPD Group.
Purveyors of upscale jerky have gotten in on the act,
including chocolate maker Hershey Co which acquired
premium beef jerky maker Krave Pure Foods early last year.
U.S. per-capita consumption of meat snacks has risen 14
percent since 2012, far outpacing the growth of other savory
snacks, according to NPD Group. U.S. jerky sales totaled $1.5
billion for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 7, market research firm IRI
Tyson Foods Inc, ConAgra Foods Inc - owner
of the Slim Jim brand - and other meat producers seek to
piggyback on jerky's popularity to find new customers and
markets for soaring supplies of cheaper beef, pork and poultry.
"The cost of raw materials has decreased versus prices a few
years ago, resulting in lower average prices for jerky," said
Jeff Caswell, general manager of Tyson-owned Hillshire Farm and
Ball Park Brands.
U.S. meat producers have grappled with lower prices for
several months. For the week ending Sept. 3, choice wholesale
beef averaged $195.67 per hundredweight (cwt), down 26 percent
from its record high in May 2015. Pork averaged $77.71 per cwt,
a 43 percent drop from the all-time high of July 2014, according
to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"This decrease is bringing consumers back to the category,
while also attracting new consumers who may not have previously
been jerky purchasers," said Caswell.
Jerky products are available at grocery chains including
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Costco Wholesale Corp and
Whole Foods Market Inc. A bag of meat jerky averaging
about 2.5 ounces can range in price from around $4 to over $8
for premium products.
While beef is the most popular meat protein for making
jerky, pork and turkey are gaining popularity, along with such
exotic meats as bison, kangaroo, salmon and even earthworms.
Marketing of jerky products has surged. Hershey's KRAVE
brand featured U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in a recent
Price has also been a factor, as meat supplies surge and
push costs for producers lower.
The size of the U.S. cattle herd has returned to a five-year
high after falling to a 63-year low in 2014 following several
years of drought in parts of the country.
The hog population hit a record high last year as the
industry climbed back from the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus
that erupted in May 2013 and killed millions of pigs.
"Right now is much more financially attractive and I think
that's why we're seeing so many new brands," said Adam Beane,
ConAgra's meat snacks senior brand manager.
In addition to companies offering niche jerky products, such
as pairing nuts with dried meat, larger producers are also
KRAVE has introduced a bar featuring dried fruit and quinoa
with either turkey, beef or pork jerky.
Even Slim Jim is looking at add-ons, but not at the expense
of its lucrative meat sticks line.
"I do think there are some really interesting entries there
and I'd be lying to you if I said we haven't done some testing,"
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)