Will Priscilla Presley pull off the tango? Can football player Jason Taylor master the foxtrot? Every week finds millions of viewers tuning in to ABC’s “Dancing With The Stars” to see their favorite celebrities handle tough dances and even tougher critiques from a panel of judges.

Pardon the play on words but how about another show called, “Dining With The Stars?” Here, consumers watch their familiar meat and poultry favorites handle the twists and turns of rising costs and increased demand for health, convenience and food safety.

Data from Information Resources Inc. (see chart) suggest that sales of nearly all refrigerated and frozen meat and poultry items have either been flat or declining. That said, the American Meat Institute (AMI) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI) recently examined how high energy costs, the credit crunch, weak housing market and recessionary climate are changing how and where consumers shop and dine.

This March, the organizations released their third annual report titled, The Power of Meat - An In-Depth Look at Meat Through the Shoppers’ Eyes.  The report, which details the findings of a national online poll of 1,147 consumers conducted in November 2007, indicated growing consumer preference for at-home meals and increased concern over the cost of meat.

Specifically, the report found that:

  • Supermarkets remain the top outlet for meat, with 90.5 percent of supermarket shoppers buying their meat there. The number of shoppers buying meat at supercenters dropped from 24.9 percent to 20 percent, while the number buying meat at club stores rose from 2.7 percent to 5.7 percent.

  • Nearly 79 percent of shoppers have access to a full-service meat counter at their store, with 70 percent reporting that all of their meat purchases were selected from the self-service area.

  • Meat continues to be a staple at American dinner tables. According to the study, the average family has five dinners at home per week, with an average of 4.2 percent of these meals including a meat item. Chicken and beef are the top choices - more than 80 percent eat chicken and beef at least once a week and more than 34 percent eat chicken and beef at least three times a week.

“Consumers know that meat delivers protein and other essential nutrients,” said Janet Riley, AMI’s senior vice president of public affairs and professional development. “Processors are offering an increasing variety of convenient meat and poultry products in a wide array of nutrition and flavor formulations that are being well-received.”

Echoing that sentiment was Rick Searer, president of Kraft Foods North America. In conjunction with FMI’s recent annual retail exhibition, Searer noted, “Consumers today want more than just a new offering on store shelves. They are demanding products that offer great taste and bold flavor, in convenient options across all meal occasions.”

That said, meat was showcased among the more than 80 new products that Kraft, Northfield, Ill., unveiled at the FMI show. At a time when Oscar Mayer is celebrating its 125th anniversary, Kraft is refreshing the brand with premium beef franks (higher quality beef cuts), mini hot dogs, smokehouse thick-sliced bacon and three new Deli Fresh meat varieties (BBQ Chicken shaved, Family Size shaved and Thick Carved).

Sara Lee Corp. promises to be just as active, with a new Ball Park Angus beef hot dog and a turkey wiener (flavored to taste like beef), according to an article in Crain’s Chicago Business. Similarly, Sara Lee bolstered its Hillshire Farm sliced lunchmeat line with four new Premium Hearty Slices varieties. These thicker, heartier portions (Signature Honey Ham, Virginia Brand Baked Ham, Honey Roasted Turkey and Oven Roasted Turkey) complement Hillshire Farm Deli Select Ultra Thin products.

The AMI-FMI survey showed that other features important to consumers when selecting meat included: product appearance (4.3 percent); package size/total package price (3.8 percent); nutritional content (3.4 percent); knowledge of how to prepare (3.0 percent); and preparation time required (2.8 percent).

Shoppers also are looking for reasonable pricing of natural and organic meat, with more than 80 percent saying organic meat and poultry is more expensive either by a lot (32.8 percent) or a little (50.8 percent). Of those surveyed, 73 percent of occasional organic shoppers would purchase more if prices were lower, up from 63 percent in 2007.

Despite price concerns, consumers continue to show strong demand for natural and organic meat, with one-fifth purchasing these products.

The top reasons for buying natural or organic meat include positive long-term personal health effects; better nutritional value; and better treatment of the animal where the meat came from. The most frequently purchased natural/organic meats were chicken (73 percent) and beef (49 percent).

The share for natural meat packages grew by 7 percent in 2007, while the share of organic packages remains small.

Still, more processors are addressing these attributes associated with health, wellness and wholesomeness. Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn., recently converted its eight-item Hormel Authentic Deli pre-sliced meats line to a 100-percent natural positioning. Just this May, Chicago’s Vienna Beef introduced an all-natural frank, a self-described “first” for the 115-year-old company.

Meanwhile, Coleman Natural Foods LLC, Golden, Colo., introduced organic chicken breast strips, chicken breast nuggets, and flavored chicken wings. And Applegate Farms, Bridgewater, N.J., has introduced certified organic chicken strips.