Sharing information hinges on communication – something that participants in the pork-value chain could certainly work to improve.

It's clear from the Pork-Value Chain Communication Gaps Survey (see "Communication Gaps or Opportunities?" January 2002 Pork) that there's a lack of information sharing throughout the chain. The survey also revealed a consensus that there are benefits to gain by improving the communication flow. There's even an understanding as to why some of the gaps exist.

But while communication can mean a lot of things – and often means different things to different people – the survey did reveal common areas of interest. Participants point to several areas, critical to pork's future, about which they want to share more information.
Topping the list is pork quality. Here again, pork quality can mean different things throughout the chain, but there's little denying that quality involves a consistent product that provides attributes the customer wants. In the end, the product always winds up not just in a consumer's hands, but in his or her mouth.

"If we expect customers and consumers to keep eating our product and expect them to continue to make repeat purchases, the eating quality in terms of juiciness, tenderness, and flavor must be there," says David Meisinger, vice president of pork quality for the National Pork Board, and survey advisor.

It's logical that areas influencing the final product like pork quality, food safety, animal handling and even identity preservation would benefit all segments by sharing information. "Open communication will lead to greater coordination and chain-enhancement solutions," says Gary Ledger, a Williamsburg, Iowa, pork producer, who also served on the survey's advisory panel.

He points to work that he and other producers have done through their involvement with the producer cooperative Pork America. "We have initiated discussions with various retailers to better understand their needs regarding pork quality, as well as the potential positive attributes of a coordinated supply chain," says Ledger.
Food safety is not a new subject of interest for pork-value-chain members, but it's an increasingly important one. The U.S. government as well as consumers have placed renewed emphasis on food safety as issues like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot-and-mouth disease and bioterrorism have surfaced. Quality-assurance programs and certified- or verified-production systems are the next evolutionary steps as the pork-value chain works to ensure food safety in order to compete in export and domestic markets in the future.

Clearly all members of the chain have a role to play in food safety, and everyone has something to lose from a negative outcome.

Financial performance came in third in terms of areas needing increased communication. However, pork producers ranked it second. That comes as little surprise, because as the first link in the pork-value chain producers also feel the most disconnected to the final product. Indeed, value and price increases as the product moves along each stage of the chain. However, packers, distributors, foodservice operators or retailers are not likely to open their books to producers. After all, business is business.

Still, financial performance is a topic where pork-chain segments tend to share information among themselves. That is except for distributors/wholesalers, who most often talk with packers and retailers.

Looking outside of each segment, the survey shows that producers talk to packers/processors about financial performance, packers/processors talk to producers and retailers, while foodservice operators and retailers talk to distributors/wholesalers.
The survey shows that discussing carcass traits is not a priority throughout the pork-value chain. Not surprising, it's more important to the folks at the front of the chain than it is later on. That's because as the carcass moves through the chain it's broken down into cuts, making carcass traits a seemingly moot point. Meat (or pork) quality is what counts to foodservice operators and retailers.

However, because the quality of the final product starts with the carcass there may be room to build awareness and improve communication concerning carcass traits with other segments of the chain.

Animal welfare has gained momentum over the past year, and the pork industry has seen foodservice operators and retailers add animal-handling standards to their suppliers' list of criteria.

This is one of those topics where it would be interesting to know how the percentages have changed over the years. But since this survey is the first of its kind, there's no way to know. Overall, the survey results suggest that there's a lot of talk about animal handling these days.

Identity preservation is a relatively new topic for the pork chain, and it's one that has become more significant over the past several months for all food suppliers. It will continue to gain momentum as the pork chain looks for ways to ensure product quality and safety. In the export market, identity preservation has become a competitive calling card – a way for some suppliers to set themselves apart from the pack. In the future, it will be a requirement simply to participate. That scenario also will unfold in the domestic market although at a slightly slower rate. Some niche marketers are dipping their toe into this water, but no one offers complete identity preservation at this time.

"Each segment can function better if they know and understand the needs and wants of other segments," says Meisinger. "For example, retailers would benefit from knowing what contribution swine genetics or animal handling make to pork quality, and how those things can be modified to improve quality."

Within the questions and responses outlined in the survey, there are a multitude of communication opportunities. It shows that there is a need for pork-value-chain participants to broaden their information scope when it comes to talking about things like quality, animal handling, food safety and much more.

It offers a place to start.

Editor's note: The Pork-Value Chain Communication Gap Survey was conducted in 2001 by Philip Morris Management Corp., Vance Publishing's Food Systems Group and Pork magazine. See "Communication Gaps or Opportunities?" in the January 2002 issue of Pork magazine for details on survey participants and the first round of results.

For More Details
Interested in more information from the Pork-Value Chain Communication Gap Survey? You can access more charts and data by going to the Pork magazine Web site at www.porkmag.com.