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Market Snapshot: Jerky. Rating the top brands

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We did a battery of tests on the top 12 jerky brands. Get insider insight into how their water activity levels, pH, moisture content, overpack and underpack ratings compare.

This webinar discusses a market sample of jerky brands and breaks down data regarding water activity and moisture content within a wide variety of jerky packages. While the brands are made anonymous, the testers noticed distinct trends within each brand of jerky.

 

Jerky Testing Samples

The testers chose to test jerky using a consumer reports approach. The jerky was purchased from local stores to accurately represent production plants, production location, and lot numbers. Three bags of each flavor were purchased. Thirty-one flavors of jerky from twelve different brands were purchased, resulting in approximately one hundred packages of jerky.

Figure 1. The average water activity of each jerky product was measured and compared.
Figure 1. The average water activity of each jerky product was measured and compared.

Water activity and Moisture Content

Water activity within the jerky samples ranged from 0.6 to 0.8, demonstrating the different approaches companies take when making the product. The most consistent results per brand indicate a high process control. However, if too much water is being driven off of the product, that shows room for process improvement.

While the upper limit for safe water activity is 0.85, the pH of the product can affect the water activity limit. The lower the pH of a product increases the water activity limit, though this requires tight, controlled processes to limit microbial growth.

Figure 2. Comparing water activity and moisture content can predict the quality of the final jerky product.
Figure 2. Comparing water activity and moisture content can predict the quality of the final jerky product.

With jerky, increased water activity leads to an increase in the supply, or tenderness, of the jerky. However, the trick with water activity is to stay within an acceptable water activity range, avoiding the risk of hazardous microbial growth. Packages with higher water activity molded quickly once out of the package, often spoiling before the promised time frame for freshness.

Moisture content can vary even at the same water activity. The product's formula (i.e., spice blends and marinades, sugars, salt, and raw materials) affects its water-holding capabilities. Ultimately the moisture content doesn't matter; product consistency does. Variability with moisture content and water activity indicates a technology and production end problem.

The results grouped jerky brands according to low water activity (mainly from the same brand) and high water activity (mainly from similar brands). The moisture content clustered around the isotherm (the relationship between moisture content and water activity).

Results and Process Control

Brand H showed similar water activity and moisture content results across its products, indicating good process control. On the other hand, Brand F had an extensive range of water activity among its products, which is not good. A wide variety of water activity among products with the same brand indicates that the production processes are not as controlled as they could and should be.

Process control is critical when manufacturing a product and dramatically affects the company's product results and its bottom line.

Overfill

Overfill within product packaging represents balance in the packaging and the production process. Companies want consistency in package weight and the ability to put enough product into the package without putting in too much and essentially giving away product. But not putting in enough product could risk the brand's reputation and violate regulations.

All brand products have an average package weight target, and no bag should be produced that comes in under the labeled weight on the bag. The maximum allowable variance depends on the labeled weight of the bag and the variability among brands.

Figure 3: Jerky packages are often over-filled, which decreases profits.
Figure 3: Jerky packages are often over-filled, which decreases profits.

Brand K was found to underfill their bags, which could indicate regulation violations. Brand A, however, achieves consistent results in their package weight. Inconsistent processes are usually the reason why most brands overfill their bags.

Teriyaki-flavored jerky was the most likely to overfill across all brands. Unfortunately, the testing didn't investigate this phenomenon, but it could be because teriyaki flavors tend to be more sticky than other flavors within the same brand.

Recommendations for Jerky Makers

Small jerky makers should always consider water activity, the best ways to measure water activity, ways to remove variabilities from the process, setting up and taking records, and monitoring values. Big jerky makers would do well to partner with technology companies that can make a legacy machine smart. Improving machines will address the smokehouse process and result in the right amount of jerky per bag.

Conclusion

Jerky production has to follow strict USDA regulations, and water activity defines a profitable moisture level. This testing discovered room for industry improvement in jerky production, including a $50 million market opportunity for gain when addressing overfill in product packaging. The key to a consistent and reliable product is in the amount of process control. The data supports this across all brands.

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