The meat industry is facing widespread challenges. People are being advised to eat less of it for health reasons. Plus safety questions about antibiotics, hormones, e-coli and now cloning have consumers a bit on edge.

Over the last several years, “case ready” pre-packaged meats have changed the look of many meat cases. Many meat cutters and cutting rooms have disappeared or been downsized, but some are coming back. Shoppers like seeing them in the store because of their on-site customer service and image of “freshness.”

About 25% of fresh meat is now branded. About 5% is value-added or ready-to-cook: “Bacon-wrapped tenderloin steak” is a big seller, which makes “more flavor” look more important than “less fat.” With all that, it’s amazing that shoppers still care about the way meat is packaged-but they do.

Our panelists (still) don’t think much of the typical store-wrapped meat packaging. Those who have seen the new vacuum packs that seal each item give them higher ratings than store-wrapped packages, which often leak. A Wegmans shopper I intercepted buying meat in “Stay Fresh” packaging told me it was great.“I’ve switched from buying custom cuts at Whole Foods because this costs less, stays fresh longer and tastes just as good.”

Inside the mind of a shopper

To get a first-hand fix on a time-pressed young woman’s meat-package perceptions, I made a shopping appointment with Lisa, a 34-year-old wife, full-time administrative assistant, meat-eater and mother of Nickolas, age 4, and Matthew, just 9 months. Her husband, Jim, has been out of work for almost 10 months, but Lisa’s job pays well, and she feels secure.

We met on a Saturday morning at her neighborhood Shop Rite supermarket in Northeast Philadelphia. Before shopping, we talked over coffee at a counter at the front of the store.“We’re watching our spending and not going out to eat right now. We’re not even ordering in!”she says. “But it’s not a big deal, because I like to cook and when Jim gets back to work, we’ll be eating out and ordering in as much as ever because we won’t have the time to cook ourselves.”

When I ask her to tell me what she likes and dislikes about meat packaging, she says,“The packaging I like is easy to open and close and mostly see-through. The packaging I don’t like is wet, hard to open and harder to reclose.”

Do you use ready-to-heat meat products?“I try to avoid them. Here at Shop Rite, I buy steaks, ground beef, chicken and occasionally pork roasts and ham steaks. I do buy Jennie-O’s turkey breasts to save fat and calories, but mostly we eat whatever we like. When we go to Sam’s, which is less often now, I buy multi-packs of club steaks.”

She repackages almost everything and thinks that few food packages freeze well without additional packaging. Neither her husband nor her 4-year-old pay attention to zippers and lids.“My husband cuts off zippers without seeing they are there. He’ll apologize if I call him on it, but he doesn’t notice stuff like that. He does a little better with lids, but you can forget zippers for both Jim and Nick.”

She scrutinizes the underside of ham steaks before choosing the package with the smallest bone. Before putting them in her shopping cart, she puts the ham, steak, store-packaged ground beef and chicken breasts into clear plastic bags that hang over the meat counter.“They are almost always icky on the bottom.”

The large package of ground beef was for tacos for that evening. The beef that wasn’t going into the tacos would be shaped into meatballs, repackaged in freezer bags and frozen for during the week. Apologizing as she reaches for Tyson Tenders, she says:“These aren’t very healthy and rarely on sale, but Nicky really likes them, and the easy-open package is great. I actually don’t rewrap this until I open it.”

She has stopped buying fresh bacon because“it’s greasy and takes so long to cook. We used to like Thorn Apple Valley a lot, but now we’re only buying the Oscar Mayer precooked when we go to Sam’s. It saves time and mess and never gets burned.”(Lisa is right on trend here-fresh bacon sales are down, but precooked sales are growing.)

She or Jim buys rotisserie chickens when they’ve forgotten to plan dinner.“Rotisserie chickens cost a little more than doing my own, but they save so much time and are great for the last minute. We get two dinners and a lunch out of one chicken, so it’s a good deal.”

She heats slices of rotisserie chicken in the microwave and warms legs and thighs in her big toaster oven. When I ask if she repackages the rotisserie chicken, too, she says: “Of course. You can only heat that package in the microwave anyway.”

When I ask if she would put the tray in her oven if it was oven-safe, she says:“Sure. Then I wouldn’t repackage it until after our first meal.”

When I ask if the domed package is too large to store in the fridge, she says:“No, I repackage it right away, but we have a second refrigerator freezer in the basement, so there’s plenty of room.”

Does that mean that fitting on the fridge or freezer door isn’t important to you? “No way! Being on the door means we can find it right away and that my husband or Nick don’t make a mess looking. The big Heinz ketchup bottle fits on the door, which is good because we use a lot.” So being door friendly means not only that a package will have room to stand up, it means that it will be found faster as well.

When I ask if she has any environmental concerns about the sea of plastic domes that stretched from the rotisserie chickens through the bakery, she says:“I’ll worry about that when Nick starts school. I don’t have time for that now.”

Shopping with Lisa called into question many of the categories that color our thinking. She’s an old-fashioned girl in a fast-moving marketplace. Family history, packaging and friends influence her choices. She is drifting toward time-saving foods even though she feels that the food she cooks from scratch is healthier, as well as cheaper, than anything she buys ready-made. She will probably continue to use more time-saving foods if the packaging continues to please her.