Market Snapshot: Jerky. Rating the top brands
Webinar - March 28, 2019

Market Snapshot: Jerky.
Rating the top brands

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.

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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.


How to use isotherms to discover where your product is most stable and find the points beyond which it cakes or clumps, loses crispness, or develops other negative attributes.

Let’s move on to talking about overfill. Overfill is an interesting problem because it represents a balance. When we were talking about moisture content and water activity, the balance was having enough water in your product that it has good organoleptic properties, that it has higher profitability, that you’re not drying off water that you could’ve sold, but not having so much water in the product that it would support pathogen and bacteria growth. Here, the balance is different. For overfill, when you want to nail your package weight, what you’re looking for is consistency and the ability to put enough product in the package, but not too much. If you’re not able to control your process well, putting too much in the package gives away product to the customer. Some of our customers literally call it “giveaway”. You’re giving somebody something that’s not on the label weight on the bag. If you put too little in the bag, you risk your consumer reputation, and you also risk being fined by regulators based on violations of weights and measures regulations based on conditions such as maximum allowable variance. 

For our different brands here, we’re looking at what level of overfill they were able to achieve. The statutes are pretty clear on this relative to what companies need to do: produce an average in each batch (the average of every bag within the batch) that must not be lower than the labeled weight on the bag, and no individual bag may be below the max allowable variance for the bag. You may ask, “What is max allowable variance?”. It is listed on tables provided by regulators, and is dependent on what the label weight of the bag is. You go to the table and locate the label weight of the bag you’re making, and the max allowable variance is defined there. You’re allowed to put as much product as you want in the bag, but putting too little product in any one single bag is prohibited, and this minimum limit is shown on the table. 

If we look across the brands here, what we’re seeing is a lot of variability in the different brands. Brand A, again, has very tight variability, and their average is right around the zero mark for overfill, so they’re doing a really good job. Brand C is also pretty good with their averages, but the variability is extreme, so this is a less consistent process. As we look at these less consistent brands, brand D is an example of a brand that’s average is significantly higher than their package weight, so overfill is a significant issue. In fact, most of these companies that you can see here have averages that are above the label weight for the bag. The only exception is the brand K, who has really dialed down their process to the point where they’re underfilling every bag. We didn’t look into the specifics in there, but it’s possible that they’re in violation of regulations because their average weight for their batched may be below the label for the bag, which is a definition of a non-compliance. 

What we see here is that there are some brands here like brand A who have very consistent results. Most of the other brands over-fill bags because their processes are not consistent, and then we have one brand that is underfilling bags, which is a potential regulatory issue. Again, these are just data that we were able to obtain by buying the product at the store. Another interesting thing that we found here was that teriyaki was, by far, the most likely flavor to cause overfill. We have a theory that this is because the pieces stick together, making hard for the combo weigher to make its way through a batch of teriyaki, more than it would be for, say, an original or spicy beef jerky product that doesn’t stick together.

To wrap up, what recommendations do we have? The first recommendation that we have is: if you’re a small jerky maker, use water activity and work with us – we’re happy to consult with you on these things – to find the best way to use water activity measurements to get variability out of your process. Getting a water activity meter, setting up, starting to take records and just monitoring the day in and day out values in your process costs less than $10,000. For most jerky makers, that’s an investment that’s going to pay for itself almost immediately.

The other recommendation that we have is that: if you’re a bug jerky maker, partner with a technology company that can make your legacy machines smart. Meter Group is a company like that, and that’s why we want to highlight these potential opportunities for saving money in the jerky industry. Conversation often arise with questions like “Why is the smokehouse process not nailing the moisture number?” or “Why do combo weighers not put out the right amount of jerky for each bag?”. The opportunity to improve exists by making these machines, the ones you already have, smart. The solutions to these issues are for a different webinar, but using data to make better decisions and making your legacy machines smart are things we’d love to talk with you about.

BN: Thank you Scott. We’re going to take a few of your questions. We have time for a few of them. Along with Scott, we also have Mary Galloway here, she is the lead scientist in our food lab, and she is here to take questions specifically about how the Jerky Market Snapshot study was conducted. There is still time to answer your questions by typing them into the questions pane, and we’ll get to as many as we can before we finish here. Scott, the first question here: Can we get a copy of the data you collected for this study?

SC: Yes. If you would like to get the complete data set for the study and you’ve attended that webinar, just send us an email and we’re happy to provide that for you. You can see what the different brands are, we didn’t call them out by name on this slide deck, but you can see in the data set who those companies are. Just drop us a line and we’d be happy to share it with you. 

BN: Next question: Why does moisture content vary so much at the same water activity?

SC: Okay, that’s a really good question. There are two main reasons. The first has to do with the formulation of the product in terms of what spice blends and marinades are being used by the different jerky types. Things that are high in sugar content can have higher moisture content but still have reasonable water activity if the salt or sugar content is particularly high. Sweet jerky types such as teriyaki can have higher moisture content than a regular original, especially one that doesn’t have a lot of salt in it,  because the sugar is lowering the water activity. The other thing to think about is that the raw materials themselves affect the water holding capability of the product. You’re likely to see a higher moistures at the same water activity for products that, for example, have not been frozen before they were processed or that are processed fresh as well. The way that the meat itself has been treated prior to the production of the company does affect the moisture content you are able to achieve at that water activity.

BN: If everyone measures water activity, why is there so much variability in the product?

SC: That is a question we have asked ourselves for a long time. One of the reasons why, as a company, we are pushing more into the technology side is that our customers don’t necessarily want water activity readings, what they want is a consistent product. Typically, that requires us to be out in the production area taking readings and also helping people monitor their processes so that, before a product is overdried, we can say, “Hey, let’s stop this smokehouse run right now because you’ve nailed the moisture that you want”. Most of the times, the reason why there’s so much variability is that companies are completing the entire run, taking the batch into the QA lab, and then finding out when it’s too late the product was overdried. It’s really a technology challenge. How do we get the data to a point where the process can actually be controlled and influenced? That’s really what we’ve been working on with some of our software initiatives, and that’s something we’d be interested to talk to clients about.

BN: Alright we’ve got time for one more question for Scott before we switch over to Mary, and we’ll get a double question here: Is overfill tied to the quality of your equipment? Similarly, does correcting over and underfill just require more sophisticated machinery?

SC: This also is a good question. I can be tied to the equipment, but it can also be tied to whether your equipment knows, for example, what product it is working with at a particular time. Buying more sophisticated machinery can be a way to address overfill in packages, but it is possible that the machinery you have right now is functioning just fine and you just need a better way to send orders to the combo weigher. That requires some knowledge of process, it requires some knowledge about the specific product you’re making, and it also requires some knowledge about the specific machine. Each of your machines is going to behave a little bit differently even with the exact same settings, so being able to characterize that – having the product context when the decision is being made, and then having live data from the check weigher – all of those things are critical to being able to hit your overfill number, and it’s possible to improve your overfill number a lot without buying more sophisticated machinery.

BN: Alright thank you Scott. We’re going to switch over now and address a couple of questions that came in for Mary. One of our listeners is asks: How did you test water activity and moisture content in these products? Just give us the basic nuts and bolts of the process here.

Mary Galloway: Thank you. What we did was we purchased several different brands and flavors of jerky hoping to get a good representation of the different plants where they were produced, shown by the different lot numbers, so that we could get a little more varied in our information that we were pulling, and capture a little more of a global perspective. From there, we purchased three bags of each of the flavors, totaling twelve brands and thirty-one flavors – totaling almost 100 different bags of jerky. From each bag, for the water activity, we made three subsamples there by cutting them up and getting a good representation of the bag, tested the water activity three times for each of those subsamples, averaged all of that, looked specifically at the different flavors and specific brands and had it all broken down, but then for the slides that Scott showed, we averaged all of the flavors for the different brands. All of the flavors, brands, and packages were averaged in order to get a good overview. 

For the moisture contents for each of the packages, we cut pieces of the jerky in order to get a good representation of what’s in each bag, and made two subsamples of each of those. We used loss on drying, which is where you put each sample in the oven at 100°C and dry it down so there’s no change in moisture loss anymore, and then we calculated a moisture content based off of that. The same idea applies there as the water activity where we’re averaging the data, using standard deviations, things like that, and depending on what we were looking at, whether it be the flavor or the brand, we would average those values. 

For the overpack, we would measure the package whole and intact, and then we would dump out the contents and weigh them and weigh the bag and take into account what is printed on the bag. Depending on how those measured up, we’d get a percent of over or underfill for each of the packages. 

BN: Looks like we have time for one last question. This one goes toward food safety: I thought .85 was the upper limit for water activity, don’t those high water activity jerky samples get moldy?

MG: This is a little bit more of a complicated question than it first appears.  I want to start out by explaining where the .85 upper limit for water activity is from. That is based off what we call potentially hazardous foods. If you have a water activity above .85, you’re in a zone where you can potentially grow hazardous microbes like salmonella, E. coli, botulism, things like that. We call those “potentially hazardous foods” because you can put people in the hospital and they could potentially die, which is very scary. We have that limit of .85 because if all other things are in an ideal situation, that is the lowest water activity that they can grow. That’s a proven limit.


Use water activity to determine whether or not a product is susceptible to microbial proliferation.

There are ways that you can have a slightly higher water activity and still maintain that lower microbial growth, though you don’t want to get those potentially hazardous microbes growing. The problem is that, for example, you can lower your pH and in response, your water activity limit will actually increase. Let’s say you have a pH of 5.2 or below, you can actually have a water activity as high as .92 and still not have an environment where those potentially hazardous microbes can grow. 

However – and this is a big however – you have to have an extremely tight process that you’re controlling, and you have to prove that you are limiting those microbial growths. If you want to make sure that your product is always going to be safe, no matter what the other conditions are, then that’s why we have the .85. You will not have any trouble if you are at that water activity or below. 

Mold is slightly different because it is not a potentially hazardous microbe. It’s not desirable, but it won’t put anyone in the hospital. It might make them feel a little ill, but it’s not potentially hazardous. Mold can actually grow at a lower water activity limit, generally at the .7 range. With all of the packages we tested, we didn’t find any trouble with that, even with the packages that were close to the .85 water activity. However, once we opened the packages that were closer to that .85, they molded within a day or two which surprised us because, generally, a package says you have three days to refrigerate it or consume, so that is a little concerning. I just wanted to point out that that limit and mold are slightly different things, and that’s something to be aware of if you are trying to operate in the higher water activity ranges: how tight the control is on your process, and if you’re able to maintain that.

BN: Great, thanks Mary. That’s the last question we have time for today. If you did submit a question that we didn’t get to, we’ll have our team follow up with you by email within the next day or so. Thanks again for joining us today. We hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as we did here, and thanks again for such great questions. Scott did mention that study data are available to people who attended this webinar live. If you’d like to see that data or if you’d like more information on improving control of your products’ water activity or your package weights please reply to the follow-up email. That email will also contain links to the recording and to the slides. Stay tuned for future METER Food webinars, and have a great day.