A New Alternative
By Bryan Salvage, Editorial Director
Evolving category offers solutions for packers, retailers, and consumers.
America's beef industry tapped into a major marketing vehicle
when the Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) program came on the scene back in 1978. Suddenly, commodity cuts of beef were being branded — and value was being added. This appealed to consumers who felt like they were given more choices, as well as to packers, processors, and retailers who were able to market value-added CAB® products.
Meanwhile, premium pork products are now entering the scene. Years ago, fresh pork products were considered nothing more than commodity cuts with little value-added. Times have changed. Premium pork is available in at least two tiers. For example, Farmland Foods Inc., Kansas City, MO, a Smithfield Foods company, offers conventional pork products, but it also offers both enhanced and all-natural lines — both of which are considered as premium.
"You might consider premium as those cuts that are trimmed to the blue, and boneless cuts and fancy cuts might also be looked at as premium," says Mike Witt, Director of Branded Pork, Farmland Foods.
But there still might be some confusion among retailers as to just exactly what the definition of premium pork is.
"To some extent, most retailers are offering some type of premium cuts in their meat case today. But premium could have different meanings to different people," Witt agrees. "By and large, retailers are carrying premium cuts that might be seasoned or ready to season, or it could be further value-added, pre-cooked products. Then there are special trims or special packaging that would designate some pork products as premium."
Premium pork is pork that delivers a superior eating experience, says Rick Parker, Director of Marketing, Premium Standard Farms Inc. (PSF), Kansas City, MO. PSF offers two brands of premium pork. One is PSF's All Natural Fresh Pork and the other is PSF's Natural Excellence Fresh Pork. Both come in a full range of cuts. The All Natural Fresh Pork contains no additives or growth hormones, and it is minimally processed. PSF's Natural Excellence Fresh Pork has the same attributes as the All Natural line, plus it contains no antibiotics.
"Many companies evaluate their pork on the basis of pH, lean color, and sometimes marbling, and then they sort it into 'premium pork' and 'the other stuff,'" he adds. "PSF evaluates pH, lean color, and marbling, and in addition — fat quality, purge, and meat firmness. PSF also works with researchers at Iowa State University to evaluate palatability [eating quality] characteristics. Because we are vertically integrated, we have the controls necessary to maximize our production of premium pork. Our proprietary genetics, animal handling systems, and in-plant processing are designed to make sure that all of our pork qualifies as premium pork."
The growing list of retailers throughout the country offering premium pork is impressive. Hannaford Brothers Co., Portland, ME, offers a Smithfield program on the East Coast; Tampa, FL-based Kash n' Karry also carries a Smithfield program; and Quincy, MA-based and Stop & Shop Supermarkets and Landover, MD-based Giant Food Market both offer a Swift premium pork program. Lund's/Byerly's in Minneapolis, Stew Leonard's in New York, and Hen House in Kansas City are among the retailers carrying one or more of PSF's premium pork programs.
Retailers can learn from CAB's success when it comes to carrying premium pork cuts and products.
"The biggest points learned from CAB® are that consumer education is key with a program like this — and retailers must also figure out their product mix for customers and be consistent about it," says Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the National Pork Board (NPB). "The packer community is responding to retailer requests for two-tier programs that can include an enhanced line [marinated or basted] and also a 'premium' line to respond to those consumers who are not interested in enhanced product or are looking for specific product attributes."
When it comes to answering the question of how much of "premium pork" is science and how much is "marketing," science weighs in heavily.
"Science is the basis for premium pork and provides the building blocks and procedures for creating a superior product," Parker says. "Relationships between traits like pH and color, tenderness, and juiciness are well established in the scientific literature. Marketing is a tool to let people know about these benefits."
Farmland Foods executives think the benefit behind premium pork is the science behind it, answers Witt.
"While we know it's legal to just take conventional pork and say it's all-natural because it's minimally processed and has no artificial ingredients, we didn't take that marketing route to promote our product. We actually developed the science behind the product, and we selected the specific genetics and developed them, which gives us the quality, consistency, and high-marbled product that once consumers try it they'll buy it again and again. The genetics, quality, and consistency of the product gives you something to start with to talk about the marketing of the product."
In order for premium pork to be successful long term, both science and marketing are important, says Joe Linot, Group Brand Manager, Pork, Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, KS. "At Cargill Meat Solutions, our premium pork is truly premium. Each cut of Sterling Silver® Premium Pork [SSPP] is selected for all of the qualities that make pork taste so good. Selected from butcher-quality hogs, our pork is hand-selected for consistent color, tenderness, and juiciness. Plus, our gentle handling process also contributes to superior taste and color.
"We found that SSPP even ignites the same passion in consumers that they have for the finest cuts of beef," he adds. "SSPP truly delivers unparalleled flavor and a longer shelf life than ordinary pork: twenty-four days bone-in and thirty-two days boneless from date of packaging."
Superior moisture retention in premium pork provides better cooking yield than ordinary pork, he adds (based on Trial 22649 — Independent university study 2001).
"Best of all, SSPM is not only delicious, but also nutritious with select loins and tenderloins even certified by the American Heart Association," he adds.
Cargill Meat Solutions also offers Prairie Grove Farms®, 100-percent natural pork.
"This premium pork is raised naturally — with no antibiotics, no growth stimulants, and no preservatives. Ever. This is pork that is USDA Process Verified, assuring consistent quality product."
Having a third-party certification is very important when it comes to the science versus marketing question, says Vincent Breton, president of Quebec, Canada-based Les Viandes du Breton Inc. The founder of du Breton Natural Pork, his company has been producing premium natural pork products for Canadian consumers for three generations. Its products are also sold throughout the United States.
"We offer a complete range of fresh pork— from the tail to the head — under the duBreton Natural Pork and duBreton Organic Pork [labels]," Breton says. "We offer custom cuts and case-ready items.
Products include bone-in pork chops, pork loin chops for barbecue, pork cubes and cutlets, roasts (pork loin center cut roast, old-fashioned roast, rib end roast, and tomato and basil roast), tenderloins, ribs (St. Louis-style spareribs, back ribs, spareribs, cutlets, and rib loin), and marinated pork products (Jamaican Jerk, Garlic Herb, Ginger Soy, Ginger Teriyaki, and Mario's Marvelous),
"Our natural program is humane certified, and our organic program is QA1 certified," he says. "I think that third-party certification makes the difference between science and marketing."
High-quality pork starts at the farm. du Breton hogs are raised by small, family-owned farms. They do not receive antibiotics in their daily, all-vegetarian diet to stay healthy. Instead, the company's contracted farmers raise hogs humanely under natural living conditions, which allows them to express natural behaviors. Company pork is processed without the nitrates, artificial flavorings, sodium, and water that conventional producers use to increase flavor and color, the company further relays.
What is the nutritional make-up of premium pork —is it better than standard cuts?
"It depends on the definition, usually premium pork is non-enhanced so sodium levels will be lower," Linot says.
"This depends upon each program," Breton adds.
Make more money
Top of mind for retailers is learning the answer to the question: Will offering a premium pork line increase my sales?
"You've asked the sixty-four million-dollar question," Boillot says. "We [NPB] don't have hard data to answer this yet. Ideally, it would augment sales."
"Incremental sales will occur because consumers now can have a premium product like they are used to with other proteins," Linot says. "Consumers want flavorful meats. Our premium pork provides consumers with the rich, natural, flavorful eating experience they look for and expect."
A premium pork program helps the retailer to differentiate its position versus other retailers, and it satisfies some consumer requests, Breton says.
"It depends on the retailer's type of consumer or market," he adds.
"[Premium pork] should drive the sales of pork because consumers will have a better eating experience with premium pork," Parker says.
When it comes to what premium pork cuts consumers are demanding, Linot says that boneless chops and tenderloins continue to lead sales.
"Back ribs also provide better cooking results for consumers," he adds.
"All the cuts but the high-value cuts are more popular [tenderloin, loin, crown roast, etc.,] Breton adds. "Demand for processed products is increasing faster."
"Consumer demand is very similar with the possible exception that premium pork has less impact on the eating quality of pork cuts that are traditionally slow cooked," Parker says.
New products fuel growth
When it comes to buying premium pork, what attributes (taste, color, marbling, tenderness, juiciness, consistency, nutrition, etc.) are consumers willing to spend more money on?
"Taste [which also includes consistency, tenderness, and juiciness] is number one," Witt says.
"Consumers are most interested in the benefits of great taste, tenderness, and juiciness," adds Parker. "They want convenient, nutritious pork that gives them the confidence that they will have a positive eating experience. Traits such as pH, lean color, fat color, purge, and marbling contribute to meeting this desire. Consistency relates to how often the supplier meets the consumer promise."
"Tenderness, food safety [no animal by-products and no antibiotics], and humane treatment are the most recognized values," Breton says.
Consumer education must continue, Linot responds.
"Consumers make better choices when they are aware of the important attributes of premium pork," he adds. "Unfortunately, too many consumers still overcook pork. Taste and color are very important for consumers when preparing and enjoying pork. As the Fresh Meat Specialists™, Cargill Meat Solutions will continue to partner with our customers on consumer education. We want to help our customers find new and unique ways to further educate their own consumers on buying premium pork."
New products continue to fuel the growth of the premium pork segment. Farmland Foods' newest premium-pork offering is its Nutrition Wise™ line of extra-tender enhanced pork.
"It's all American Heart Association certified so it's ninety-five percent lean or leaner — many of the cuts are ninety-eight percent fat-free." Witt says. "There are sixteen items in the line, and we even made this line net-weight and scannable, which makes this line unique. We have even won a couples of awards this year for this line."
CMS' newest premium pork product is Sterling Silver Applewood Smoked Bacon. This premium-quality, center-cut sliced bacon is smoked with natural, applewood flavor and delivers a softer, more complementary flavor.
"It adds depth and complexity to everything from the classic BLT to the gourmet, bacon-wrapped pork or beef filet," Linot says.
Prairie Grove Farms recently introduced Prairie Grove Farms Bone-In Spiral Sliced Ham and deli-style ham.
"These products offer a true hickory smoked flavor with no artificial growth stimulants, and are raised without antibiotics," Linot says. "Prairie Grove Farms hams have all-natural juices, and the smoked deli-style ham is sliced for consumers to enjoy easily and often."
Meanwhile, duBreton has introduced marinated organic pork.
Marketing premium pork
At present, retailers are generally marketing premium pork as a secondary line, with inclusion in the full-service case and self-serve case, Boillot says.
"Cargill is in the early stages of marketing premium pork lines," Linot says. "We are working with our retail partners to merchandise premium pork effectively with new merchandising ideas and consumer-friendly meal ideas. With our customers, we provide new and different merchandising ideas, in-ad coupons, and most importantly, extensive meat department training."
"We are working with the retailers for featuring some items, and we give the retailer specials on less-popular items," Breton says. "We use point-of-purchase material for consumer education and also feature some demos, which allows the consumer to taste the difference."
Farmland Foods, one of the first processors to offer enhanced pork, has been offering extra-tender pork for more than 14 years.
"But we decided to take the Nutrition Wise™ line and select leaner cuts, and we certified them all with the American Heart Association," Witt says. "We point out these products are low-carb, high-protein, and low-fat — things that appeal to people and their diets today. And by net-weighting this line, we think we have set this line apart from the competition."
Farmland assists its retailer customers with product demos.
"We felt it was important to get trial on these new package styles so we helped the retailer demo the product,"" Witt says." We also provide point-of-sale materials that stand out in the meat case to draw attention to this new line.. We also supplied them with advertising layouts, ad slicks, and more. Retailers know that feature activity causes more movement."
Premium Stand Farms markets its premium pork to potential retail customers through trade ads, direct mail, and through sales presentations made by its salespeople.
"We work with our current retailer customers to grow their business with in-store promotions, consumer brochures, labels, and point-of-sale signage, and in other ways," Parker says.
Knowledge is power
Before contacting processors on carrying a line of premium pork, retailers must first find out what their customers are looking for —and what level of interest there is with regard to premium products, Boillot advises.
"Working with packers to test this concept is valuable as well," she says.
"The retailer must understand their customer base," Linot agrees, "and they need to understand the attributes of premium pork [i.e., pH, marbling, color, and consistency] are all important."
Retailers should look at the third-party certification program and understand the value of the program versus a commodity program, says Breton.
"They would get a better deal or value if they market a full program [fresh loin and ribs, bacon, ham, etc.]," he adds. "If retailers market a greater percentage of the pork carcass, their value will be better."
Parker says retailers must answer the following questions.
"How is the supplier in question producing premium pork? How are they evaluating it? What assurances do you have that the supplier is doing what he says he's doing? What research does the supplier have to back up his claims? Will they have sufficient volume to support my business along with others they are supplying? Pork companies that are sorting often have limited quantities of pork available," Parker adds.
Retailers need to find out as much as possible about each program, Witt urges.
"You would think that retailers would want to be proud of what they're selling and be able to talk about what they're selling to their customers," he adds. "We think they need to know the whole background of the program we're selling so they have that 'buy-in' about it — they must have trust and confidence in the program. The whole key is not just to sell premium pork once, but to sell it again and again to their consumers." NP