We bought jerky from local stores, big chains, and online retailers. We tested old storied brands alongside up-and-comers. We tested brands that produce everything in house and brands that are co-packed at different facilities.
The result? A market snapshot of twelve jerky brands. In this quick 15 minute webinar, Scott Campbell reviews the findings. Learn:
- which brands achieved a consistent product across the samples we tested.
- which brands came dangerously close to the safety limits, and why.
- which brands over-pack—and which ones don’t quite meet the minimum.
- the projected costs of inconsistency in packaging and drying.
CEO Scott Campbell presents the findings of the METER Food Lab. He is the author of the “Water in Food” blog and has visited dozens of jerky makers in his quest to help them collect data and use it to consistently make great food.
- View the slides.
- Knowledge Base: Water activity and shelf-stable meat products.
- Talk to a product expert.
Brad Newbold: Hello everyone, and welcome to our Market Snapshot Jerky Webinar. Today’s presentation will be fifteen minutes, followed by five minutes of Q&A. If you have a question during the webinar, type it into the questions pane. You can submit a question at any time. We will keep track of these questions submitted during this portion to answer during the Q&A. To answer our most commonly asked question in advance, we will be sending out links to the on-demand webinar and the slides to everyone who attended today’s webinar. Those will be available a day or two following the webinar. Now I’m going to hand the microphone to Scott Campbell today’s presenter.
Scott Campbell: Hello everyone and good morning, or good afternoon depending on where you are. To start out today, I grew up here, in the place where METER Group is headquartered in Pullman, Washington. As a kid here in rural Washington state, and also having parents who hated network television, magazines and newspapers were really my window to the outside world. One of the publications that we got a lot at home was Consumer Reports. I used to love pouring over the different analysis of cars, and vacuum cleaners, and washing machines and seeing how the different brands ranked, seeing the different data that they gathered on the different products, and which earned the rating of best performing and best buy.
We’ve been involved in the food processing industry for over thirty years now, and we’ve learned a lot about the meat snacks industry, partly because of our water activity technology. Meat snacks, as you know, have expensive raw ingredients and strict USDA regulations. Water activity typically defines the most profitable level of moisture for meat snacks.
A couple of months ago, based on this Consumer Reports approach, we decided to buy around $1,500 worth of jerky at different stores in our area and test the brands using analytical devices. We tested products for weight, water activity, and moisture. We found a lot of really interesting differences between the brands and their approaches. We also learned some things about how the industry can improve. The opportunity for improvement is pretty clear. The jerky market nationally exceeds 150 million pounds per year, and if we just take a cost of $6.50/lb and our data show that the rate of overfill in packages is above 2%, and the rate of overdrying means that it was also a little higher than 2%. If we take those numbers and multiply them out, the total market opportunity for improving operations is north of $50 million. That is how much operators could avoid spending on raw materials by nailing their moisture content on every batch that they make.
Let’s dive into the data. There’s a lot of really interesting information that we were able to collect. The first thing to note is that we are hiding the brand names of the products that we tested; these are actually trade names on packages that we have here. The different brands are identified by letter. Brand F “Beef Original” had the lowest water activity of any package that we tested at .622, and then we ran all the way up to .852 where Brand A, “Extra Tender”, was the highest water activity that we saw.
The first thing you’ll see here is that there’s a huge spread in terms of the water activities that these products show up at the store as, representing a lot of different approaches in making product, in some cases, indicating that the process control isn’t particularly high. This also means that there is, just as an overall trend, way too much water being driven off of these products. This is an opportunity for process improvement partly because water is a cheap ingredient for a company that buys raw materials at $6-7/lb, but also because consumers prefer softer jerky product, and if you are able to increase your water activity, you can increase the tenderness of that jerky. All things being equal, you can see that in the water activity numbers, there was a huge spread in these brands we bought.
As you can see we purchased thirty-one different products from twelve different brands, and these gave us the materials for our tests. We can see some some groupings here. One of the groupings is these low water activity products, and you can see that many of them are from the same brand. We have these relatively high water activity products and again, you can see that these are also from a similar brand. Brand A had three of the four highest water activity products. When we look at these data relative to their moisture contents as seen on this graph where moisture content is on the Y axis and water activity on the X axis, you can see something really interesting.
Firstly, most of the samples tend to be clustered around what is known as the isotherm. The isotherm is the relationship between moisture content and water activity. In the case of the jerky that we’re measuring it’s something of a straight line, slightly curved. Each jerky, based on its formulation and the meat that’s in it, is going to have a slightly different isotherm, but you can see they’re mostly clustered around this area of a .6 water activity with a moisture content of 16% all the way up to a .85 water activity with a moisture content of 35%, so there are a lot of different results that we can see from these measurements that we took having to do with the different brands. The brands shown are represented by color. Let’s dive in a little bit and see what those are.
This brand, H, tends to have relatively good control. This would be considered good control as the spread is pretty tight on the x-axis. The y-axis doesn’t really matter because, except in cases where we’re talking about moisture protein ratios, the thing that’s going to determine whether the product is shelf-stable is water activity. Because pathogenic bacteria can’t grow below .85 water activity units, we want to see a water activity level in that range. Brand H is represented by the blue dots on the graph, and here we see a spread from about .76 all the way up to .81 and they’re spread pretty tightly.
If we look at a different brand, brand F, this is what we don’t really want to see. Here is a huge range of water activities: the lowest water activity product here is below .6 for brand F and you can see that the highest one is almost .85. Here, this brand is not really controlling their process using water activity, and they’re missing opportunities to have a more consistent product, as well as drying off moisture that they could’ve sold in many of their products. You can see one brand, H, that is likely controlling using water activity because most of their products end up in the same range, and then another brand, F, who is not doing that at all, missing a lot of moisture that they could’ve sold in their product.
Another brand here is brand A. This is consistently the highest water activity brand. They don’t have any examples of samples that we pulled that were below .8 water activity; a very good process control. They’re hitting their numbers batch after batch. These aren’t internal data, these are just data we pulled from testing product in the store, but you can see the effects of focus and product control on companies’ results.