Other articles in the seriesThin Is In –Or Is It? | Opportunities Abound, Threats Remain

Baseball teams start each season with a new strategy, and that’s exactly what the pork industry has to do. This doesn’t mean starting from scratch, but learning from past years and moving forward with a new game plan.

That’s the idea behind the pork industry’s Benchmarking Value in the Pork Supply Chain study. Once the study was completed, those involved with it outlined a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and strategies for the pork industry.

In the last two issues, Pork editors have reviewed the SWOT analysis. Now it’s time to look ahead to the strategies needed for the pork industry to create a game plan for the future.

  • Continue addressing and improving pork
    quality shortfalls, especially as it relates to the consistency of weight, composition and quality of U.S. pork.

    After talking with people in all industry sectors, the pork industry needs to address some key issues in order to move ahead in the next 10 years.

    The first is animal handling, as it pertains to pork quality. “This is extremely important for producers, truckers and packers. All three contribute to pork quality problems,” says David Meisinger, assistant vice president of education services, National Pork Board. “All sectors of the industry, whether you’re working with one pig or 100,000 pigs, need to take a different approach to handling than ever before.”

    Another key is giving more attention to the eating quality of pork products. Meisinger points out that one large U.S. packer is adjusting its buying program to put more intramuscular fat back into pigs, and it’s seeing improvements in pork quality.

    A third area needing improvement involves encouraging producers to use genetic lines that improve the eating quality of pork products.

    “PSE (pale, soft and exudative) is still a problem,” adds Elisabeth Huff-Lonergan, meat scientist, Iowa State University. “The industry has done a good job of getting rid of the Halothane gene, but we need to look at other causes. I believe there’s still a genetic source of PSE.”

    “There are so many variables affecting quality – genetics, nutrition, handling,” she adds. “Determining who gets the economic benefit or blame will make it difficult to improve quality. This is where niche markets come into play. They can capitalize on high-quality products.”

  • Improve the amount and value of communication among pork-chain sectors.

    “Communication within the pork industry is being driven by retailers’ perceptions of consumers’ expectations,” says Roger Johnson, Farmland Foods’ director of pork quality.

    Here’s how it works — retailers identify a list of needs to provide to their consumers, then work to get the information from packers who in turn obtain information from producers.

    "It’s becoming forced communication,” adds Johnson.

    One resulting benefit is food-safety accountability. He says it will allow consumers to buy products with the same traits and assurances next week as they purchased today.  

    One concern in trying to create consistency is that everyone is dealing with the biological system of a pig, which means there will always be some variation. At the same time, Johnson acknowledges, “We need to have some variability because not all consumers are the same. Not everyone has the same expectations.”

    He believes that all sectors of the pork chain need to work to determine what type of product offerings work in a particular market and go with that, versus trying to make all products work in every market.

    “We need to do a better job of defining target markets for particular products,” says Johnson.          

  • Lean-meat yields have improved, but further backfat reductions may be counterproductive. Many hogs are too lean (generating problems with performance, productivity and reproduction) and too many carcasses have unacceptable quality (bellies that are too lean and cuts with too little marbling.)

    There is a decline in muscle quality as the pig gets leaner. “Producers and packers need to determine which genetic parameters they’re choosing for, and then figure out how to manage the different genetics appropriately, both at the farm and plant levels,” says Huff-Lonergan.

  • The U.S. pork industry must develop clear economic signals. Priorities in this area include:

    * To easily and objectively measure pork quality along the production/processing chain.

    * To focus on producing pork that meets domestic and global, seasonal and geographic consumer demands for fresh, enhanced, processed, user-friendly, value-added and ready-to-eat pork products.

    The industry continues to pay too much for poor-quality hogs. “It has hindered the industry,” Huff-Lonergan notes. “There are not enough incentives for producers to capture the value of high-quality pork.”

    There’s no doubt that each pork-chain sector has a different definition for quality. “It comes back to defining the market and adding value in that market,” says Johnson.

    Consistency is a value, especially with a perishable product. “We’re looking for the raw material to achieve customer repeatability,” notes Johnson.

    Another issue facing the industry is the diversity among retailers. Large volume retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, have the advantage of buying products in bulk and offering consumers large quantities and more variety. Whereas regional and local retailers have to be more selective in their product offerings.

  • All pork industry segments must pay attention to animal welfare, food safety, introduction of foreign animal diseases, environmental issues, competing animal-protein sources, non-meat protein sources, U.S./world economies and potential opportunities in global marketing of “North American” pork.

    These types of “wish lists” are becoming common among consumers and retailers, but the issues are usually perceived and not always real. “They’re based on what the consumer is relaying to the distributor,” notes Johnson.

    Issues such as country-of-origin labeling, traceability, food safety and environmental responsibility are hot buttons for today’s consumers.

    “If you’re a producer or packer and you pollute the environment, a high number of consumers would say that’s unacceptable, and they wouldn’t buy your product,” contends Johnson. “Being animal-friendly and environmentally responsible are big selling points. Consumers want the pork industry to accept accountability for things they can control — and all sectors need to be accountable.”

    Looking to the future, Huff-Lonergan says consumers want something that’s easy to prepare and low cost. She points out that pork has products for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the industry needs to capitalize on that point.

    Another positive today is the popularity of high protein diets. “These have moved meat from the ‘questionable’ category into the ‘okay’ category,” she says. “If those diets continue, it may help the entire pork industry.”

    Another area to push is foodservice. The National Pork Board is working on projects to place more pork items on those menus.

    All of these strategies must be considered as you, and the rest of pork industry, develop a game plan for the future.