SPRINGDALE, Arkansas (Reuters) - Selling meat is a lot more complicated than it used to be.
While supermarkets are still the destination of choice, consumers now confront an array of meat that has been cooked, breaded, marinated, and packaged in various ways so that they can prepare it quickly without the hassle of thawing, cutting, or seasoning.
The emphasis on convenience means higher prices at stores and greater profits for meat companies.
"If we can save the consumer time and effort, we can charge more for it, because time is money," said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council.
While chicken has led the way in this meat-case evolution, beef and pork are now getting into the act. Many more changes are in the pipeline, according to meat industry experts.
In an era of tough competition and greater health-consciousness, meat companies are spending more than ever before on product development, said Ted Schroeder, agricultural economist at Kansas State University.
Tyson Foods Inc, the world's largest meat company, hopes to accelerate that trend with its vaunted "Discovery Center." The $45 million center is part research lab, part test kitchen, and gathers 120 R&D employees in its 100,000 square feet of space near Tyson's headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas.
The center, which opened a year ago, has reduced new-product turnaround time to as little as a few days from the traditional one or two months, said Hal Carper, Tyson's vice president of research and development.
The center has a USDA-inspected meat plant, which allows the company to know exactly how a new product will flow from plant to a store or restaurant under real-world conditions, said Chris Alsip, a director at the center.
One product coming out of the center is "Oven Bagged Creations." These are packaged beef, pork, and chicken items that can be cooked in the bag, reducing preparation time by 10 to 25 minutes, said Alsip.
Tyson will not say how much of its nearly $27 billion in annual sales comes from the processed meats, but did say the amount is increasing.
About 50 percent of the center's work is devoted to beef and pork, with the rest to chicken, said Carper.
"People are always surprised to learn how much red meat (beef and pork) R&D we are doing here. We are doing a huge amount of that," he said.
Beef, and to some degree pork, has lagged in new-product development but is gaining traction as meat companies seek new profit streams to offset higher production costs. Higher feed and energy prices have pinched profits.
The higher cost of beef and pork, relative to chicken, has been one reason for the slower development of convenient beef products.
"There is lots of opportunity, but you have to be more creative with the raw material that you are using than on the chicken side," Carper said of red meat. "As you do value-adding to those things it is a little more challenging to hit the price points that people would expect to see."
New beef products are badly needed, said Kansas State's Schroeder.
"We are not a growing industry in the U.S., we are shrinking, and we have been for a while. The only way you can revitalize and prosper is to make sure you are developing products that will generate some premium value," he said of the beef.
While food companies have created convenient beef and pork products, Schroeder believes much is yet to be done.
"There is more to be had, because there has been less done," he said.
About 15 years ago, chicken surpassed beef as the most popular meat in the United States, partly because of new products, such as chicken nuggets and quick-to-fix chicken products.
Chicken companies are not seen standing still either.
"You go down the frozen food aisle and you find all kinds of products in resealable bags. Tyson is very big into that, so is Pilgrim's Pride Corp.. Perdue Farms has some. That is where most of the excitement is these days," said Lobb of the chicken council.
Reporting by Bob Burgdorfer, editing by Matthew Lewis