By Lynn Petrak,
Pumping taste and tenderness into fresh-meat products equals innovation for pork processors.
The word “value” may mean different things to different people, but fresh pork companies have spent the better part of the past dozen years trying to deliver value in one form or another to consumers. They can be shoppers browsing the meat case, retailers interested in case-ready products or foodservice operators seeking to keep up with flavor trends and deal with other issues, such as tight labor situations.
For those who value convenience, pork processors have helped people preparing meals cut corners by providing fresh pork products that are pre-portioned, pre-seasoned or pre-packaged. Just about anything “pre” in fact, is designed to make preparation and serving easier.
For those who equate value with taste and quality, pork companies have also been busy finding ways to figuratively and literally enhance fresh pork. The use of injection and marinades have led to more tender and juicy cuts for customers looking for a satisfying eating experience, while flavor-seeking taste buds have been satiated with seasoned cuts in flavor profiles ranging from Asian to Italian to All-American barbecue.
Processors continue to offer cuts that are more budget-friendly, from thin cutlets at the fresh-meat case to offerings sold through discount and “big box” supermarkets for customers who link value with its other definition — price.
Although all protein categories now include some type of value-added offerings, the pork industry was an early innovator in value-added fresh products and remains active in research and development. Brands from Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp., Greeley, Colo.-based Swift & Co. and Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods and several of its divisions, such as John Morrell & Co., are just a few examples of companies that delved into value-added options several years ago, with such items as pre-marinated tenderloins sold in vacuum-sealed packages and tenderized cuts including chops and roasts.
To be sure, the development and continued expansion of value-added products has impacted other links in the supply chain. Pork processors have expanded and, in many cases, established relationships with ingredient suppliers, as they create formulations for seasoned, marinated and ready-to-cook products. In some instances, pork companies must install new equipment to produce these items, such as injection and tumbling equipment, high-speed portioning systems or more sophisticated packaging machines.
Meanwhile, further down the farm-to-plate chain, retailers and foodservice operators have a two-way effect, sometimes driving demand for value-added products based on feedback from their customers and from the realities of their day-to-day operations and sometimes having to adjust their respective inventories to accommodate new value-added fresh pork items.
One concept that has become a hallmark of the value-added segment is marination. That trend, too, has been impacted by dual-customer demands for convenience and quality. “Today’s consumers are busier than ever. These time-starved shoppers, searching for quick and nutritious meals to serve their families, have helped to spur sales of the marinated pork category,” remarks Lin Harbold, new product development manager for Smithfield Foods.
The fact that consumers are more discerning has also led processors to develop products designed for maximum tenderness. “Pork traditionally has been somewhat inconsistent in tenderness and juiciness, so adding moisture to pork helps to combat this,” explains Kelly Carmin, pork brand manager for Swift & Co.
One look at pork processors’ roster of products exemplifies the move toward marination and, in particular, the emphasis on significance of tenderness. Brands like Hormel’s Always Tender® and John Morrell’s Tender N Juicy, are ubiquitous in the retail meat case and are commonly used by foodservice operators seeking to ensure that the final cooked pork product is moist and tender for discriminating customers.
Although many marinades are added for moisture purposes only, some include a boost of flavor. In that sense, pre-marinated loins, chops and even roasts result in a juicy product with a spicy kick of some kind, ranging from Cajun to Thai.
Pork lends itself to many flavors, which is one reason why the value-added segment in general has taken off, notes Carmin. “Pork’s natural flavor doesn’t compete as much with added flavorings the way other red meats do.”
Even better news for those who believe that value in a return-on-investment sense ultimately results from the development of value-added products, sales of marinated products, for both tenderness and flavor, are on the upswing. According to Harbold, sales of Smithfield marinated pork have more than quadrupled since 2000.
The John Morrell group, a Smithfield unit, also reports strong performance for its value-added products. According to marketing director Jane Weiler, the combined volume increase for the first 22 weeks of fiscal year 2007 (which began in May)was plus-35 percent for John Morrell’s Tender N Juicy Fresh Pork, Tender N Juicy Seasoned Fresh pork and all natural fresh pork.
“This strong growth is projected to continue as we approach the calendar year,” Weiler concludes.
A meal deal
Adding value to fresh pork products can entail adding entirely new ingredients. That too, affects the supply chain in how such ingredients are sourced, processed, packaged and merchandised in the meat case.
Butcher shops and other retailers have sold things like oven-ready stuffed pork chops and grill-ready pork kebobs for years, but the category has taken a new twist more recently with case-ready products from national pork brands. Large pork processors, as a result, may find themselves dealing with suppliers of cooked rice, dried cranberries or bread cubes, among other food products.
Earlier this year Smithfield rolled out its One Step Closer line of marinated stuffed pork entrées. “These premium products were developed in response to consumers’ demands for high-quality meal solutions that taste good and are easy to prepare,” Harbold reports, adding that oven-ready selections include pork loins stuffed with garlic mashed potatoes and homestyle gravy, pork loins with herb stuffing and homestyle gravy, teriyaki pork loin stuffed with wild rice and garlic and herb pork loin stuffed with wild rice.
Making the cut
In their quest to provide value to consumers through ease and speed of preparation, pork processors have developed more pre-portioned products that are cut, sliced, diced or ground at the processing plant and shipped case ready to retailers and foodservice destinations.
Pork chops, cutlets, tenderloins and ribs have been staples for generations, but the category also includes sliced, minced or cubed pork for dishes like stir-fry and stews, among other applications. As processors develop such products, they have revamped their processing lines to include new type of portioning equipment.
The National Pork Board, for its part, has helped encourage the development of cuts deemed value added by nature of their shape or size. Through one recent checkoff-funded study, the National Pork Board helped identify new cuts, including a new “pork breast,” a versatile piece of meat that is already being sold as pre-marinated fajita meat and a “pocket roast,” a tender, smaller roast portioned for two people that is used for rotisserie and personal roasts.
Emerging value added products
In addition to marinated products and consumer-friendly cuts, there are other examples of fresh pork products that can be considered value added. Among them are natural and organic products, with a perceived value of being better for you or better for the environment, depending on the personal factors driving consumption.
Some companies are striving to improve their fresh pork offerings in other ways. Swift & Co., for its part, recently launched a new premium pork item. “We’ve discovered the first pork product that responds to aging with our 1855 Premium pork products,” notes Carmin, adding that the product is hand selected for “supreme quality based on years of scientific testing and research.”