Farmers and retailers changing to meet consumer demand for transparency

By Natalie Taylor

After years of high meat prices and the rise of protein alternatives, meat and poultry are making their way back to consumers’ dinner tables. It’s good news for grocers, given that meat is the top reason for shoppers’ preferred store choice, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) most recent consumer survey, which found that retailers who are seen by consumers as “meat experts” can double overall sales per customer when fresh meat is purchased.

Steve Brier, production director at Smithfield Foods in Nevada, Mo., discussed how farmers can further help retailers give consumers an excellent experience in the meat department with members of the Missouri Grocers Association at its recent annual meeting. Brier’s presentation, titled “Powering Meat Case Profits,” examined how consumer demands for transparency with meat ingredients and production practices are changing the way farmers are building and maintaining customer satisfaction and trust in buying their products from the meat case.

“We recognize the vital connection between animal health and human health, and are committed to raising pigs humanely and responsibly,” said Brier. “We are also committed to being transparent about how we raise pigs so grocers have the information they need to address consumers’ questions.”

Consumers, particularly Millennials, have a growing interest in the story behind their meat purchases. Where did the protein come from? How was it raised? What are the health benefits? Retailers are also modifying their practices, tailoring their fresh meat cases to feature brands that are fully transparent about nutrition, animal welfare, food safety and their impact on the environment.

Catering to the Sophisticated Customer

One of these featured brands is McKenzie Country Classics, based in Burlington, Vt. McKenzie has been focusing heavily on its clean-label, antibiotic-free meat line with last year’s launch of an uncured Antibiotic-Free Cob Smoked Bacon, and this year’s introduction of its Antibiotic Free Natural American Angus Uncured Beef Frank as a park of its McKenzie Natural Artisan Deli line.

“The growth of the never any antibiotics line is still our biggest opportunity outside the state of Vermont,” says Greg Rouille, sales director at McKenzie, which is focusing heavily on never-ever antibiotic products. The company is among a growing number of hot dog brands that offer uncured versions of their beef franks. “Many are not all-natural or antibiotic-free, though McKenzie American Angus Uncured Franks are both,” notes Rouille.

While McKenzie has been successful with its antibiotic-free offerings, consumer demands extend beyond the use of antibiotics. “Ten years ago, one of the key issues was antibiotic and hormone growth promotants,” says Mel Coleman, VP of retail at Niman Ranch. “Although that is still very important, animal welfare has taken center stage in purchasing decisions for the modern customer.”

Now farmers are using science-based practices that include proper nutrition, modern barns and disease prevention to keep animals healthy so they do not need medicine in the first place. Though antibiotics are still used if necessary, with veterinary oversight, to treat sick animals or prevent illness, according to Smithfield’s Brier. “It is unethical to withhold treatment,” he adds.

Niman Ranch, based in Northglenn, Colo., last year became the largest company in the Western Hemisphere to be Certified Humane by the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a non-profit certification organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter.

It’s no secret that Millennials are changing the way food is produced and consumed. Studies have found that many feel the products they purchase must somehow touch their lives, whether through the way they were raised and produced or with their call outs and attributes, according to Michael Uetz, principal at Midan Marketing.

The Chicago-based meat marketing consultancy once again spearheaded the industry’s most recent “Meat Consumer Segmentation” survey, results of which found that shoppers’ increasing demand for transparency with meat and poultry ingredients and production practices has fueled double-digit growth for organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free, grass-fed and other special attributes.

“We have noticed an increase in customer sophistication and demand for transparency of both how and where meat was raised,” says Randy Strauss, owner and president at Strauss Brands, based in Franklin, Wis. “Customers are taking it upon themselves to research where their meat comes from as there is a growing awareness of the amount of imported meats on grocers’ shelves. In today’s environment, any retailer who isn’t offering a quality grass-fed beef program is essentially letting sales walk out the door.”

Healthy Protein Preferences

Animal welfare is not today’s meat consumers’ only concern. As consumer health and wellness trends continue to grow, both retailers and suppliers are drawing attention to the nutritional value of meat to combat the rising popularity of “healthy” meat-alternatives.

Farmers have made pork one of the leanest, nutrient-rich protein choices available, according to Smithfield’s Brier, which the USDA confirmed in a study that showed pork tenderloin is as lean as a skinless chicken breast. Pork tenderloin and pork sirloin roast have also been certified by the American Heart Association as heart-healthy foods.

Similarly, the National Turkey Federation (NTF), based in Washington, D.C., has been working closely with supermarket registered dietitians on behalf of turkey farmers and brands to recommend turkey as a healthy protein choice. “Ground turkey has expanded noticeably over the past five years, from chorizo and Italian-seasoning to ground turkey in patties, sausages, meatballs and more,” says Keith Williams, NTF’s VP of marketing and communications. “The ample lean meat on a turkey means generous cuts in turkey wings, necks and drumsticks, as well as cutlets, chops and tenderloins.”

However, industry experts say today’s consumers are seemingly less interested in avoiding cholesterol, calories and fat, instead focusing on other healthful attributes. Shoppers are becoming more interested in natural, pure foods with less fillers and ingredients, according to John Gladney, marketing manager at Kodak, Tenn.-based Swaggerty’s Farm. In order for grocers to retain repeat customer purchases, Gladney affirms the products must not only list these claims, but also deliver flavor, quality, taste and consistency.

“We are exciting new shoppers’ taste buds all over the U.S. with our all-natural, preservative-free products,” he says, by “capitalizing on shoppers’ desire for quality by using the highest quality ingredients we can find, and by artfully and scientifically producing them in convenient slices and portions that make preparing meals in the home tastier and easier.”

Defining Value-Added

Value-added meat is one of the most profitable and fastest-growing categories in the fresh meat case today, according to Tammy Shaw, VP of retail marketing at Cargill Beef. While most retailers do provide some offerings of value-added meats, it is essential that they understand the consumer’s mindset and the category’s benefits to experience success. “For example, for many consumers, value-added meats offer the great taste and flavor that they are looking for in their eating experience, and for others, they enjoy the ease and convenience that it can offer,” Shaw says.

Compared with the total meat category, value-added meat has significantly outperformed other meat segments in recent months. According to Nielsen Fresh, for the 13 weeks ending April 29, 2017, total meat dollars were down 1.4 percent, but value-added meat dollars were up 2.8 percent year over year. In that same time, total meat volume was up 1.2 percent, but value-added volume was up 6.6 percent — presenting a major opportunity for retailers to capitalize on the growing trend. Cargill has specifically seen significant growth in its Today’s Kitchen line of fresh meat mix-in patties, with volume up 25 percent year over year, says Shaw.

“One popular Today’s Kitchen offering is fresh mix-in patties that are packed with flavors such as bacon cheddar, jalapeno and pepper jack, and bacon and bleu cheese, allowing consumers to easily explore new flavor combinations without time-consuming prep work,” explains Shaw. “For grocery retailers, fresh mix-in patties offer reduced or redirected labor, unique products that are difficult to produce in-store, a shelf set that is optimized for maximum velocity and reduced shrink.”

Convenience has been a huge driver for consumer purchases throughout the store perimeter, and the fresh meat case is no exception. A successful retailer must be in the right place with the right products that are going to fit the needs of their specific customer base, according to Midan Marketing’s Uetz, including a variety of protein options in trending flavors and convenient packaging, including cook-in bag products, or seasoned and marinated kebabs, burgers and sausages.

“An issue we’ve dealt with in the meat industry for a long time,” Uetz continues, “is trying to get our product packaged in a format that is going to allow quick meal preparation and still give all the great benefits that fresh meat brings to the meal solution—the flavor, the bite, the enjoyment.”

Pricing Plays a Role

Consumers are also seeking ways to enjoy flavorful, diverse meat options at affordable prices. A few years ago, overall beef prices were higher due to shorter supplies, according to Tara Adams, director of account strategy and key accounts at Certified Angus Beef (CAB). “Now that supplies are rebounding and prices are softer, beef sales have gained strength through regular features,” she says.

Certified Angus Beef, based in Wooster, Ohio, enforces 10 exacting quality standards, and only three in 10 Angus cattle earn the CAB brand name and logo. “When consumers purchase beef, they want a product that delivers a good eating experience,” says Adams. “The Certified Angus Beef brand delivers on its promise of superior quality and consistency. It is the original and best brand of Angus beef, brought to the table by the family farmers and ranchers of the American Angus Association.”

Even Millennials, who tend to be a bit more frugal with their money, have strong spending power. Uetz says that while price is always going to play a role, the challenge as an industry is to get the consumer beyond price and focus on providing a solution to benefit their needs.

Engaging the Customer

Industry experts agree that the best way to drive fresh meat case sales is through regular features, promotions and education. Certified Angus Beef is among the companies that work one-on-on with retailers for strategies for merchandising, marketing and training to identify specific cuts that offer greater sales and promotional opportunities, as well as provide advertising tools, recipes and photos to help support these efforts on social media.

But for the younger consumer base, promotion must extend beyond advertising tools. Cargill’s consumer segmentation study identified a group of young consumers, known as Social Conscious Foodies, that has less experience preparing meat, but still wants an eating adventure. Many young consumers think meat is difficult to prepare, yet they are still seeking flavor and creativity in the meals they prepare, according to Shaw.

“Consumers love an in-store experience. The experience of the shopping environment has to be significant. We need to have it resonate throughout the store, but when focusing on the meat case, we need to give them an experience that allows them to feel comfortable, engaged and informed,” adds Midan’s Uetz, who believes in the value of providing a full-service meat department. Though it is difficult to find educated butchers, simply offering the perception of having a butcher available to reach out to customers, discuss products and sales, and answer questions is significant to the consumer.”

Moreover, he adds, “We found that a majority of customers are not comfortable engaging the butcher. But if the butcher engages them, it’s a different story. We need butchers who want to help customers, who want to come out from behind the case, who want to have a conversation and create a relationship with their customers over the full-service case, so that they begin to develop these relationships and ultimately build loyalty with the customers,” Uetz notes. It’s all the more important, he adds, “because customers know that they can go in and find something brand new,” and better yet if it’s on sale, because “they’re comfortable that the butcher is going to be able to tell them exactly what to do with it to allow them to be successful with the product when they get home.”

Originally published on August 3, 2017 |…/Meat-the-Experts/