It promises retailers salvation from woes such as labor costs, product inconsistency and, particularly since the infamous E. coli outbreak of 1993, product safety concerns.
But despite such graces, case-ready -- fresh ground beef that needs no further processing or handling at the store, save to move it from the shipping box into the merchandising case -- still remains just beyond the grasp of practicality.
There are more than a few persistent obstacles in the way, but there are also reasons to keep the faith, according to executives at one of case-ready's crusaders, Signature Foods.
"Sales of case-ready ground beef in U.S. supermarkets are still insignificant, especially when compared to Europe, where case-ready has become the rule vs. an exception," said Stuart Polevoy, chairman of the branded ground-beef processing company, based here.
"We can easily say that retailer interest has grown substantially in the last three years. But the processor, retailer and consumer are all responsible for the slow introduction of case-ready ground beef," Polevoy said.
"Case-ready ground beef still represents probably less than 1% of all coarse ground-beef sales," said Jenny Nielson, director of marketing for Signature. "There are still only a handful of retailers who have tested it.
"We encourage our retailers to try case-ready ground beef, but to do so with caution, because there's a lot we, and they, don't know yet."
Availability. "There aren't many processors who have case-ready products available on a broad basis," Polevoy explained. "The technology and research and development are expensive. And, case-ready packaging tends to be highly problematic."
Retailer reticence. "Retailers need to be prepared to give case-ready the number of facings and provide the variety of leannesses that it will take to make it a success," he said. "Retailers are still tentative. It's going to take time."
The grocery-bred "price first" mentality is another block to case-ready. "Many retailers still purchase ground beef as a commodity based on price, and they are resistant to the increased prices that processors must charge," said Nielson.
Skeptical shoppers. "The perception of freshness remains a problem. This will change over time, as it has for poultry and hams. This is an area where branding becomes helpful," Polevoy said.
The convergence of several forces should be hastening the day when case-ready becomes a more important factor.
Packaging advancements are one such force, although, as Polevoy put it, "the jury is still out on which packaging format will yield the greatest benefit to retailers and consumers."
"There is an increased awareness of food safety with both retailers and consumers, although this is not a new issue for Signature," said Mort Glass, Signature's president. "Food-safety concerns have not negatively impacted ground-beef sales, but consumers are now more selective when buying ground beef," Glass said.
Case-ready also eliminates fine grinding and packaging at the store level, which helps reduce the risk of contamination; but it also cuts down on in-store activity.
"Five years from now, we will definitely see more case-ready products," said Glass. "But the packaging technology may be different than it is right now. Retailers will need the same, or better, safety benefits at a lower cost. Case-ready needs to be less costly to be embraced by retailers."