It sounds like a sure winner. Combine consumers' demand for precooked, convenience products along with their insatiable craving for hamburgers, and you get the precooked hamburger — a product that ought to lead the race among fully cooked, case-ready items.

Americans love hamburgers. They consume 14 billion of them each year. What's more, convenience is one of the mega trends in the food industry. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) Beef Innovations Group, convenient and microwavable products accounted for nearly a third of all new product introductions in 2005.

“The precooked burger has tremendous growth potential — simply because the hamburger is America's favorite sandwich,” says Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for NCBA, the organization that contracts to manage retail programs for the national beef checkoff.

Precooked burgers have been around for several years; until recently, they didn't sell well because they didn't taste good, says Robert Maddock, North Dakota State University meat science professor.

But that's changed. Thanks in part to the great innovations in the heat-and-serve beef category, the industry has a better understanding of precooked beef's potential for warmed-over flavor, which is caused by oxidation. This has led to tremendous success in formulating products and packaging to avoid this off flavor.

Even so, Maddock says it's not easy to develop a precooked hamburger that's acceptable to consumers. It requires quality control, extreme supply chain management and ingredient control. More specifically, the process requires paying very close attention to raw material inputs and making sure the raw meat is kept very cold, processed quickly, cooked to the right temperature, and then chilled and frozen rapidly.

“All that together helps to decrease the off flavors that happen when you precook hamburgers,” he says.