Employees at the Logan Township plant for Veroni, an Italian food company specializing in traditional cured meats, have to dress up before entering the packaging room.
They start with jackets to stay warm in the low temperatures meant to preserve the meat, then don aprons, hair nets, shoe covers, masks, and gloves. Before moving into another section of the plant — where the meat is sliced before being packaged — they repeat the process, adding an additional layer of each item. On top of all this, they follow strict procedures for washing their hands, which they do multiple times before they can get to work.
Ensuring food safety has always been a top priority for companies such as Veroni, and that care has only increased with changing eating habits. Veroni chief executive Antonio Corsano said the company is now putting a greater emphasis on snack food that people can eat on the go without having to prepare it.
"Snacking has become more natural, more healthy," he said. "People snack in the car, but this is kind of healthier snacking. It's not chips or popcorn or processed products, it's more natural products."
Corsano is onto a big trend. Snacks comprise one of the hottest sectors in the food business. That's why when Campbell Soup Co. made its biggest acquisition ever last December, it paid $6.1 billion including debt for snack maker Snyder's-Lance Inc., whose brands include Kettle and Cape Cod brand potato chips. The aim was to reenergize the venerable soup company with snacks.
John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, said a "vast majority of people snack at least once or twice a day," and that "close to 10 percent of people don't actually eat a meal during the day, but actually snack all day long."
Veroni, founded by five brothers in 1925 and known throughout Italy for its quality and longevity, is well-poised to take advantage of the growing snack trend, Stanton said, because the kinds of snacks people are eating have also changed.
"Today's snackers are looking among a number of things, including protein snacks, which include meat snacks like salamis and cheeses," he said. "There's been a significant movement away from the three meals a day to various levels of snacking being a major portion of the American diet."
Products such as the ones Veroni produces are going to appeal to "foodies" and people looking to try more gourmet food, Stanton added.
"There's something about salami or processed meat products from Italy that if I gave you exactly the same product and said, 'This is from Italy, this was made in Wisconsin,' my guess is people are going to like the taste of the product labeled Italian better," he said.
The Logan Township plant is Veroni's first U.S. location, but the company produces all its food at one of its seven locations around Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, where Veroni is headquartered. Rather than make products in New Jersey, the company ships cured meats to the plant, where employees slice and package the food so it stays fresh and authentically Italian.
Veroni has about 40 employees at the new plant, a mix of Italians and Americans. Stefano Poldi Allay, the plant's operations manager, said these workers package anywhere from 30,000 to 35,000 trays of food a shift, which are shipped to supermarkets such as Stop and Shop and Giant. More deals are in the works.
Veroni's CEO Corsano said the privately held company sells more than $1 million worth of products in a month, allowing it to continue to invest in new equipment and employees. He said other American Italian food companies typically make "Italian style" meats in the U.S. rather than importing food from Italy, which he believes makes Veroni stand out.
Corsano said he wouldn't say authentically Italian products are higher quality than American Italian ones, but the two do have their differences. Pigs in Italy weigh an average 480 pounds and are aged longer, he said, while American pigs average somewhere between 220 and 250 pounds. The process of curing the meat also takes longer in Italy.
"Our mission is — instead of selling — education," Corsano said. "We are in the process of education: training the retailer, training the buyers so eventually they communicate to the consumer how one prosciutto is different from another one or how our salami is different from American salami."
Veroni products cost 30 percent to 40 percent more than American-made products because of the price of importing the meat, Corsano said, but there is "a lot of demand in the area" for the company's food. Because of its New Jersey location, Corsano said, the company's partners are primarily in the Northeast, representing the top market for Italian food in the country.
The highest-selling products for Veroni are salami and prosciutto, Corsano said, but the company plans on adding more classic Italian food to its production thanks to packaging that keeps food fresh for longer.
He said the company uses "modified atmosphere packaging," which uses "inert" gas and filters in the plastic that do not affect the meat, causing it to remain at a high quality as long as three months after it is packaged. "The product is the first thing, but now the package is becoming very important," Corsano said.
The packaging technology is allowing Veroni to venture into new areas of the food industry — the company is now test marketing pizza that customers can buy fresh instead of frozen. Veroni imports the pizza from Naples — at which point the product is frozen — and adds meat toppings to the pizza after defrosting it. Then, because of the packaging, the company can sell the pizza without freezing it again and it stays fresh for 45 to 50 days.