A Meaty Segment

Although the segment has its challenges, roast beef remains a big player in the deli.

When it comes to deli meat, roast beef has had more of a challenging path than turkey and ham. This whole muscle meat is not only more costly, but also has to contend with a less healthful profile than poultry as well as the media hype around the environmental impact of red meat.

However, it’s the desire of U.S. consumers that trumps these hurdles, as Americans are still loving their roast beef. According to IRI Integrated Fresh, a Chicago-based market research firm, roast beef lunchmeat dollar sales grew 14.2% between February 2020 and February 2021, the most of any deli meat, with the exception of sausage.

Yet, 2021 was a difficult year for suppliers. “Beef was among the worst in terms of items impacted by inflation,” says Christopher Carando, vice president of sales for Deli Brands of America, based in Baltimore, MD. “Our prices went up eight to 10 times in a year,.”

As a result, the company had to renegotiate quarterly pricing; rather than pricing product every six weeks, it changed to monthly due to the volatility of the marketplace.

“We were losing money because prices were going up so quickly,” Carando explains. “Everyone was having to [go to monthly product pricing]. It was not a pleasant year in 2021, but it seems like things are now leveling out.”


Although prices are still up due to inflation, they have become more stable week to week, he says.

“Supply is not the problem; it’s sourcing certain ingredients and packaging shortages that are the current issues,” Carando says.

The Climate

This is nothing new, as the roast beef segment has evolved in many ways over the years.

Carando recalls how, back in the day, supermarkets would roast full cap-on top rounds in house.

“We have evolved from this with many high-quality precooked cap-off options from multiple suppliers throughout the country,” he says. “Today, supermarkets typically offer both national and store brand SKUs in roast beef.”


The biggest trend with manufacturers has been consolidating SKUs.

“They are offering less of the smaller-volume items [that are not big sellers],” Carando explains. “Still, everything has gone up in terms of costs, including packaging, transportation, labor and overhead.”

Yet, the higher prices have not stymied consumers’ roast beef purchases.

“There is a lot of excitement around growing consumer demand for flavorful and convenient proteins, including the beef segment,” says Andrew Quinn, director of marketing, deli division, for Hormel Foods, headquartered in Austin, MN. “As a result, we’re working with retailers to expand their beef offerings in the deli.”

Because the beef selection at a retailer can oftentimes vary based upon the core shopper target, roast beef and its offshoots pastrami and corned beef can be developed to either target a premium or mainstream consumer solution.

“Customizations include raw material meat block, flavor enhancement and cook process, amongst a few other options we have available at Hormel Foods to develop the perfect solution that fits both the retailer and consumers’ needs,” Quinn says.

The Trends

Roast beef claims that are growing in today’s marketplace include organic, all natural, clean label, minimally processed, humanely raised and lower sodium.

“People want to be better informed and feel confident of what they are consuming,” Carando at Deli Brands of America explains. “We believe roast beef still represents one of the best deli choices for health-conscious consumers.”

This is the case, despite the increase in plant-based alternatives.

“Although non-meat alternatives continue to evolve, we are not yet confident these options offer consumers the product quality they seek,” he adds

Variety in the roast beef segment has taken a back seat to quality and flavor.

“Years ago, there would be Italian and other flavored roast beef, but there are very few flavored varieties around now,” Carando says. “Instead, there is roast beef with different seasonings.”

Carando adds this differs from other lunchmeats like turkey, which offers more flavored options.

“This may be because poultry is a growing category and is also cheaper,” he says.

Rather than looking at flavors, it’s more about quality and doneness.

“Roast beef needs balance,” Carando says. “Delis have to sell this type of meat with proper rareness, keeping in mind that appearance changes over time.”

In terms of shelf life, within three or four days is when roast beef’s outward appearance is altered.

“Roast beef is more shelf life sensitive compared to ham, turkey and salami,” Carando explains.

However, technology has provided a more even playing field for these lunchmeats.

Traditionally, roast beef is preserved through vacuum packaging but high pressure pasteurization (HPP) has continued to emerge, Carando says. HPP is a more expensive process but doubles the meat’s standard shelf life. With most products there is little to no preserved product change, although roast beef may lose a bit of its rare appearance.

“When traditional roast beef is vacuum sealed using high pressure pasteurization it has a 60-day shelf life,” Carando says. “There also have been packaging changes for grab-and-go roast beef, specifically for presliced, since this is a growing category.”

Part of the reason for this growth, he says, is the labor shortages in the full-serve deli leading to larger presliced and grab-and-go sections in the department.

“Pre-sliced offerings are in increased demand, and the current labor challenges have intensified this trend,” Carando says. “Portion control continues to be essential, as operators look to validate their food costs. This drives manufacturers to offer pre-sliced with tight per slice weight control and enables operators to control their sandwich cost.”

There also is a growing trend of grab-and-go pre-sliced meats being sold out of bunker cases in the deli.

“Consumers want to avoid picking a number and waiting in the deli line. They want to get in and out but don’t want to give up quality,” Carando explains.

To answer to this trend, Deli Brands of America has created a pre-sliced multi portion package.

“We pack stacked pre-sliced potions of 14-16 ounces in vacuum seal packages,” says Carando. “This pack offers delis a 60-day shelf life and maintains rareness.”

Another trend is supermarket delis are offering a wider variety of meat and poultry selections behind the glass in order to keep up with evolving consumer preferences.

“Turkey and ham continue to be some of the most popular proteins, but we still see a lot of success with beef offerings,” says Hormel Foods’ Quinn. “Most consumers value the ability to customize their deli meat selection, but because they are also seeking convenience, retailers need quick and reliable ways to deliver behind-the-glass lunch meat without a long wait.”

Spotlighting Beef

There are a number of strategies to not only highlight roast beef in the deli, but also increase sales.

“Because consumers don’t want chemicals in their food, it’s best to emphasize cleaner labels when marketing roast beef,” Carando at Deli Brands of America says. “Note products that don’t use emulsions or binding agents.”

He adds that, compared to salami and bologna, roast beef is pretty lean without much internal fat.

“The way to market roast beef is to promote the fact that sodium and fat are lower,” he says. “Also, note if it’s organic, natural or minimally processed, which are ongoing trends.”

To give product a more local feel, retailers can open multi-packs, remove the meat and repackage the product in a zipper bag with the store logo.

“This way, it appears the store sliced it themselves, and it benefits from store branding,” Carando explains. “A consistently full deli case means more sales for the store, so there should not be any empty bunker cases waiting for deli personnel to slice meat products.”

Retailers also can market these products more successfully by adding a variety of proteins and flavors, especially during back to school and holiday timeframes.

“It’s often more effective to merchandise protein types together to make it easier for consumers to shop and make their purchase decisions,” Hormel Foods’ Quinn says.

Looking ahead, Carando at Deli Brands of America predicts an increase in cleaner label and pre-sliced roast beef.

“Deli meats are on trend with consumers as they continue to seek out more nutritious, convenient and on-the-go meal options that they can make at home and that still taste great,” Quinn at Hormel Foods says. DB

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