Consumers and the meat case

All of us get a variety of industry related magazines to read. I think a majority of the readers of this blog receive National Hog Farmer and Pork, I also receive the Western Hog Journal (serving the industry in the Canadian Prairie Provinces), Pig International and Suis (serving the industry in Spain). Because we sell our pigs to packers who in turn either sell product direct to consumers via retail outlets or sell product to further processors, I also receive Meatingplace, a magazine which covers the further processing industry.

In the latest issue of Meatingplace an article presented results of the 2010 National Meat Case Study. The study was funded by the Beef Checkoff, National Pork Board and Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging division. For the study, scientists at Texas Tech University culled information from 124 retail supermarkets and 9 club stores (think Sam’s Club and Costco) in 51 metropolitan markets in 31 states. Think of this survey as representing a chance to see how our product (pork) appears to the consumer.

Trends indentified in this survey (as compared to the 2007 survey) include a spike in on-package consumer labeling, more store branding, an increase in case-ready packaging and a growth in products with ‘natural’ claims.

The increase in store-branding highlights the on going trend to the meat case no longer being a commodity market. Consumers don’t buy generic pork chops any more. They buy Hy-Vee/Hormel TenderLean chops as an example. When they purchased commodity chops, there was limited industry responsibility for the final quality of the product. If the consumer had a bad experience with a product, they just bought meat somewhere else. Today, if a bad experience occurs, they stop buying Hy-Vee or Hormel products at all locations. As we’ve gone to branded products we have raised the consumer expectations of a repeatable eating experience.

This eating experience now includes such tags as ‘natural’. You don’t have to look far in the meat case to see pork products processes with ‘all-nautral’ ingredients, what ever that means. Other common claims on meat labels included ‘minimally processed’, ‘hormone free’, antibiotic free’ and vegetarian fed’. Processors and grocery chains are now using meat labels as way to attract and keep customer loyalty, something that wasn’t a consideration in past years.

The connotations of these labels should be a concern as we relate our methods of production to consumers. We don’t use hormones in our production systems, other than at farrowing sites, yet the label of ‘hormone free’ on some packages of meat implies that all others may contain trace amounts of something bad, even if that is not the case. Other than some fish meal and plasma protein in starter diets, almost all of the pigs in the US are ‘vegetarian fed’, yet the label implies something bad about the products that don’t have the label.

Another interesting trend is that on-package cooking information appeared on 39% of the packages in the meat case. It appears consumers want quick and easy food preparation guides and on-package labels are a way for processors and retail outlets to meet that need. In the case of pork, many of the on-package labels include a reference to the Pork Checkoff as a source of further product information. What we don’t know is how many consumers utilize this link, etc.

Sixty six percent of the meat packages in the survey were case ready, up from 49% in the 2002 survey. This means 2/3 of the packaging for retail sale occurs at a site other than the final retail outlet. Pork has been the long time leader in this area (led by the early move of WalMart and Tyson in this area), but if you look at most grocery stores in large metropolitan areas today, a majority of the beef is now displayed in case-ready packaging.

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