Research shows that U.S. consumers rate taste, quality and price as their top priorities when shopping at the meatcase. Other issues, including animal welfare, tend to take a back seat.

Now, the question is where do retailers stand? Essentially, retailers are in line with consumers when it comes to animal-welfare issues.

These findings are based on a new National Pork Board animal-welfare research project conducted by RoperASW. As part of the consumer study (see “Animal Welfare: What Do Consumers Think?,” Pork January 2003) researchers spoke with some of the United States’ larger retailers to get their perspectives.

Here’s what retailers had to say about animal welfare:

  • When asked how much of an issue animal welfare is for their customers, retailers responded: “Consumers want assurances that they are getting a clean, high-quality and safe product.”
    “That was basically the same response we heard from consumers,” says Paul Sundberg, NPB’s assistant vice president of science and technology.
  • Retailers haven’t had an increased number of consumer inquiries regarding animal welfare.
  • Nor have they seen an impact on consumers’ meat buying patterns.
    Sundberg notes that some consumers who make animal welfare issues a priority are directed to niche markets that make welfare-related product claims. He says that consumers may want the opportunity to buy such specialty products, and producers can offer those products if they so choose.
  • Retailers say they have not seen a trend toward “general consumers” inquiring about animal welfare.
    “Retailers operate under the assumption that suppliers are following the best practices to supply a product, and to make sure the animals are delivered and taken care of properly,” says Sundberg.        
  • Retailers also have a lot of confidence in associations such as NPB, the American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute; government agencies, such as USDA; producers, veterinarians and researchers to provide accurate information about animal welfare.

Sundberg says that the retailers’ responses validate the consumer-research findings. “Retailers are in tune with what the consumer wants,” he adds.

AMI and FMI released a set of animal-welfare guidelines for the foodservice industry last summer, and some retailers are already working within the relm of those standards.

“It’s a smart move to have the whole industry working off of the same set of guidelines,” says Karen Boillot, NPB retail marketing manager.

She doesn’t think retailers expect animal welfare to become a major consumer concern. “My guess is that if retailers are going to adopt a set of animal-welfare standards, they will utilize the uniform guidelines,” says Boillot.

“It all goes back to consumer expectations,” she continues. “Consumers expect a high-quality, safe food supply. As long as the industry can provide this, the retailer has other priorities.”

Some of those priorities include concern about such things as foot-and-mouth disease and providing a selection of both natural and organic pork products to their customers.

Although consumers may not be asking many questions about animal welfare today, a looming issue is validation or certification programs that ensure pork products are safe and healthful, notes Dallas Hockman, NPB vice president of demand enhancement.

“The industry needs to maintain consumer confidence in the product,” he says. “There will be more segmentation. We will have to determine who’s responsible for certifying pork products and ensuring that the claims are met.”

Although retailers concur with consumers that animal welfare isn’t a top priority today, consumers are fickle and demanding, their emphasis could easily change.