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It's not your mother's meat case anymore. Stroll through a supermarket and you'll find more technology in the meat aisle than anyplace else in the store. It's likely to include:
* A selection of precooked roasts-in-a-bag that offer a return to the taste and smell of Grandma's dining room circa 1950 -- if, that is, Grandma was a little heavy with the salt shaker.
* Ready-to-heat meatloaf in a microwave tray designed so the handles don't get hot.
* Premarinated tenderloins, roasts and chops ''enhanced'' to make it virtually impossible to cook them into dry lumps of protein.
''What you're seeing is an evolution occurring in what we used to refer to as the 'fresh meat department.' Retailers now recognize that they're in the 'meal solutions' business,'' says Todd Hansen of Hormel, a major meat processor.
Perhaps the pièce de résistance of this trend is the fully cooked, ready-to-heat beef roast. Sold in its own plastic pan, it goes from refrigerator to microwave to table in five minutes.
Shoppers also will find ready-to-heat pork chops, pork roast, sirloin and beef tips. These products, and the packaging that makes them possible, give time-pressed consumers meat ''that tastes good and tastes the same repeatedly, in a matter of minutes,'' says Chip Bolton of the Sealed Air Corporation.
This all came about because in the 1980s, meat producers saw that good, flavorful cuts from the forefront, shoulder and round were being left at meat counters. Composed of muscles that cattle use to walk, these cuts require long, slow cooking to make them tender.
Though our grandmothers had the chops for the hours of kitchen alchemy that turns a tough cut of meat into a fork-tender pot roast, producers didn't see that patience in the two-career, softball-soccer-gymnastics family of the '90s.
Poultry set the pace
The convenience trend began in poultry. Consumers have purchased rotisserie birds, precooked pieces and parts, and preseasoned raw chicken for years.
''The poultry people were beating the pants off the red-meat people. They started slicing and dicing their product differently,'' says Susan Parenti, a culinary consultant with TreAmici Marketing in Park Ridge, Ill.
In 1993, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association sponsored a contest for the Best New Beef Product. The winners were all those very same beef cuts no one was buying anymore, slow-cooked in heavy-duty plastic bags for up to 12 hours, producing meat that's tender, if occasionally spongy.
It's a process used by big food producers. Chipotle Mexican restaurants use it for barbacoa beef shoulder and pork carnitas, as do several chain restaurants and the U.S. armed services.
For the consumer, however, the meat is chilled in the bag it was cooked in and sold in a brightly colored cardboard cover.
Foods that are 'forgiving'
The other big contenders for meat-case space are enhanced meats. These are premarinated pork loins, chicken breasts and roasts that come in a ready-to-cook plastic tray that goes straight into the oven.
They have a much longer shelf life than plain raw meat because of their packaging and the salt in their marinades. Many of them will last 45 days in the refrigerator.
''Your refrigerator has just become your pantry,'' says Kevin Yost of Swift & Co., the nation's third-largest beef producer.
The seasoning solution injected into the meat adds not only flavor but also makes it much more difficult to overcook.
''They're much more forgiving: People can overcook them and they'll still be juicy,'' says Lynn Blanchard of the Better Homes and Gardens Test Kitchen.
In fact, they're so hard to do badly that Swift extends a guarantee to the cook. ''If you have a bad experience, we'll cover it,'' Yost says.
The meat marketers searching for ''meal solutions'' don't care as much about the dinosaurs out there who want to cook a standing rib roast with all the trimmings. Instead, they're busy educating the next generation.
It's today's tweens and twentysomethings who are the meat industry's gold mine. They're growing up ''accustomed to eating out of boxes,'' says Swift's Yost. ''I'd venture that we're much more comfortable eating prepackaged foods that come in a tray.''
Says nutritional consultant Dayle Hayes: ''What Mom used to make really depends on what generation you're in. People who grew up in a house where there wasn't a lot of cooking don't have that reference point.''
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