Thin-sliced roasted turkey, prosciutto and soppressata no longer are the domain of the deli.
Food companies looking to capitalize on consumers' increasingly sophisticated tastes — and their need for speed at the grocer and at home — are carving out new directions in lunch meat with upscale options that are pre-sliced, prepackaged and ready to go right alongside the bologna.
They also are revamping the classics, offering new flavors and styles of basic deli meats, including better-for-you options like the new line of Oscar Mayer Selects being introduced this week.
"There has been a huge expansion of flavors," says Janet Riley, who has seen the trend as senior vice president for public affairs and member services at the Washington-based American Meat Institute — and as a mom. She was recently picking out ham for her son's lunch and was struck by "the smoked, the honey, Black Forest, the mesquite and all the other options."
Some prepackaged lunch meats now come in thicker slices, mirroring the choice at a traditional deli. Herbs and spices also are showing up in prepackaged products, boosting flavor and appeal. And there are the packages of sliced, dry-cured meats, such as soppressata and prosciutto, which used to be strictly deli items.
Meanwhile, producers have been cutting salt and removing artificial ingredients in response to customers' requests for a more natural product.
"There are consumers out there who are interested in products that have ingredients that are more familiar and recognizable, says Heather Buettner, senior director of new product development and innovation at Oscar Mayer.
The new Oscar Mayer Selects lunch meats follow last year's successful launch of Oscar Mayer Select Hot Dogs, a product that is among the tiny 0.5 percent of new products launched in the last decade to reach $100 million in their first year, according to data from Symphony IRI Group.
In addition to the hot dogs, new Selects products include five cold cuts and bacon. The company also announced that more than half of new products launched in 2012 will have no artificial preservatives. The company has a goal of reducing sodium by 20 percent across all products by the end of the year.
"This is important to consumers and therefore it's important to us," says Buettner.
The company already offers a Carving Board Meats line that are whole cuts roasted, sliced and packed to come closer to a homemade taste. That's been a hit, too, according to the company, with sales more than doubling to $58.6 million comparing 2011 to 2010.
The idea is to provide products that are closer to what someone might make at home, Buettner says. "With Carving Board, this is all about products that are as good as what you carve off your Thanksgiving turkey and just make for outstanding sandwiches any day of the year."
In terms of national sales, the multibillion-dollar lunch meat business got a bit of a boost out of the recession as more people brown-bagged it.
But last year, growth slowed, according to international market research firm Mintel. The company projects 2011 sales hit $12.6 billion, up 1.8 percent from the year before, but slightly down from the growth rates of the two previous years.
Lunch meat is ubiquitous; 94 percent of households surveyed by Mintel said they have lunch meat or have used lunch meat. But challenges to the industry include consumers having health concerns about the products or viewing it as overly processed, says John N. Frank, manager of Mintel's Food and Drinks Reports Group.
In the survey, 59 percent of respondents said they would buy the product if it was natural, a result that fits in with the Selects approach.
Mintel projects 1.3 percent growth for lunch meat sales in 2012, a slow rate that can be attributed to a number of factors, not least of which is the limiting nature of a product named after just one meal.
The report suggests that manufacturers try to get customers to think of lunch meat as an ingredient appropriate for any meal any time of day.
"The problem for lunch meat, according to our report, is that most people still only eat it for lunch," Frank says.
While the new flavors and varieties get attention, it turns out lunch meat eaters haven't abandoned old favorites. Ninety-four percent of lunch meat consumers surveyed indicated they eat turkey. And the second biggest variety, right behind at 92 percent? That exciting new product, ham.