The pork industry has made great strides in changing and promoting its product. No question, today’s pork is significantly different from that of 30 years ago, but so are today’s consumers.

The pork food chain has to continuously ask its members: Are we meeting consumers’ expectations today? More importantly, will we meet future expectations?

At last month’s Responsible Pork Symposium, participants across all sectors of the pork food chain got a first-hand look at the priorities, perspectives and desires of today’s tremendously varied pork consumers. Here’s a snapshot of what they had to say.

Q: What are your meat buying patterns, and how have they changed?

Pratt: I don’t buy much at grocery stores today. In the past couple of years, I started buying more local foods, from people that we know. We know how they produce and raise their animals and what goes into the process.

Ashcraft: Price is a factor for me. I make and freeze items. I often end up feeding my growing grandsons and their friends, so I’m looking for value. We eat pork two or three times a week, mostly ham and pork chops.

Brooks:My priority is if something is easy to make; it can’t be difficult to make or take too long. And I want good quality.

Q: Chefs, what influences your purchasing decisions?

Armstrong: We find that consumers are looking for price/value. Quality is my overriding factor; I can adjust the price. Preparation ease is important, as is staying current with trends, regional ingredients and tastes.

Huckaby: If the quality isn’t there, your product won’t be coming back into my restaurant. I’m interested in diversity and what consumers want to eat and come back for again and again.

Q: Where do you go for meat-related information?

Brooks: I look on the Internet to find recipes and ideas.

Ashcraft: The TV food shows are fantastic; I’ve learned a lot and they inspire me to try things.

Pratt: I rely a lot on word-of-mouth. I give more thought to what I’m buying today. I’m currently researching sustainable farming options.

Huckaby: Purveyors that are truthful and consistently present a quality product.

Armstrong: Suppliers, but it’s important to develop a relationship. I look for trends within industry publications and the Internet. I also work with local producers and industry segments.

Q: Who do you trust for (science-based) information?

Huckaby: I trust the industries — beef, pork, poultry. You can’t rely on the news media.

Armstrong: Relationships are important. I can go to my suppliers and get the answers I need. I prefer to go to the producers; I’m looking for them to educate me too.

Brooks: I try to go to a small, local butcher to buy meat. I know them, and I talk to the butcher.

Ashcraft: I’m going to more “fresh” markets, like Whole Foods. The people behind the counter know their stuff, not so at stores like Krogers. I like prepackaged products with cooking instructions.

Pratt: I rely on local farmers. I’m interested in hearing about the ways they’ve learned to manage around antibiotics, disease issues and the like.

Q: What are your considerations when eating out?

Pratt: We choose restaurants based on price and ease. For us, it’s challenging to find a place that serves natural, sustainable products.

Ashcraft: We tend to find a favorite thing and order it again and again.

Brooks: I look for restaurants that offer items that I can’t or won’t prepare at home.

Q: What is your favorite meat?

Brooks: Chicken; it’s easy to prepare. I know that I overcook pork.

Ashcraft: I like everything. We eat a lot of chicken; price-wise it’s a good value. The next most is beef, then pork.

Armstrong: At home, the more obscure the better. I like game meats, variety meats and beef. In the restaurant you’ll see me use more unusual meat cuts.

Huckaby: I choose pork more than beef. I’m from an old pork family, and I just like pork. There are more cuts to have fun with, and it offers more profit potential.

Q: What do you think of when you hear the word pork?

Armstrong: I love bacon, and I instantly get hungry. I use bacon in many dishes. 

Brooks: Barbeque

Huckaby: The Other White Meat

Pratt:Lard — I’ve had my first experience rendering it this year. We were talking about how lean pork is and how hard it is to get much lard out of a pig.

Q: What grade would you give today’s pork?

Pratt: C — It is a good product, but it could use improvement. I’m concerned about how the animals are raised today.

Brooks: B — Pork is very versatile and affordable.

Ashcraft:B — We are switching from beef to more pork, mostly sausage and ham.

Armstrong:B — Producers could get some more fat back into it. Also, continue to get more and better information to consumers about cooking methods, seasonings, cuts and their application.

Huckaby: B+ — As a chef and a home cook, I’d like to see more fat back in the product; we sure need it for the flavor. You need to educate consumers more on how to cook today’s pork, and to try other cuts. There are so many underutilized cuts and so many things you can do with pork.

Q: Do you read product labels?

Pratt: Somewhat; I mostly look for ingredients, but also how to prepare a product.

Brooks: I do look for what’s healthiest. I have young kids, and the ingredients and quality are important to me. So is cost and the preparation time required.

Ashcraft: I do look at labels, but I look for temperatures and how to cook it. With today’s lower fat content, I really tend to overcook pork, so I’m re-learning.

Q: How much weight does a brand carry with you?

Huckaby: It’s important to some degree. I look for what a brand has to offer me, and that depends on what I’m going to do with the product. My purveyor knows this and I rely on him for assistance. You have to pick purveyors who you trust. If there’s a problem with a purveyor or a brand, I won’t go back.

Armstrong: I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. The brand depends on the product’s application and which one fits best. Food safety is always a concern in making our purchases. Purveyors know this and if brand X has a problem, I won’t go back to it. If I want to remain executive chef at the Omni, food safety has to be a priority.

Brooks: It’s very important for food to be good, healthy — I rely on my butcher. I trust him versus big grocers.

Pratt: It’s extremely important to know where the product comes from and how it was produced.

Q: How concerned are you with animal welfare?

Armstrong: That’s a definite concern. We have a new breakfast program, and the products focus on humanely raised and natural products. We use Maverick Ranch meats. I’m a consumer as well — we need to ask more questions. My belief is if there’s one sector that seems like you don’t care about it, it raises questions about what other areas don’t you care about? It’s a domino effect.

Brooks: It (animal care) does affect the outcome of the product.

Pratt: I agree. We believe animals were put here for food, but they need to be handled properly.

Q: In your mind, are organic products better or safer?

Huckaby: First, we have to be truthful. For example, if chicken is “free range” then they need to be raised that way, not just for a few hours a day. The definitions have to match reality.

Pratt: I totally agree; the definitions are too loose. They need to be more structured. I believe organics are safer, but it’s because we know the farmers and the decisions they’ve made, how and what they feed the animals.

Q: Would you pay more for meat products raised a specific way?

Pratt: First, if it were accurate it would be great. But, yes, I would pay more.

Ashcraft: I tend to just pick up a product, and price is important to me.

Brooks: People don’t understand what things like “no hormones” mean. Depending on what the trait is, it would be worth paying more.

Armstrong: Whether it’s from the government or the producer, the definition has to be honest, and there has to be benefits for having a trait versus not having it. For example, it took some time to educate the public about fat-free items, and I think that’s where we’re at with organic, humanely raised and such things.

Q: What education-based recommendations do you have for the industry?

Ashcraft: Advertising — what we hear, we remember. We need more basic cooking information at the supermarket.

Brooks: I would suggest commercials and programming with the Food Network.

Huckaby: Get real information to food writers, specifically about cooking temperatures and how the product performs. Not enough people who write about meat know enough about it today. Pork needs a catch phrase related to cooking as good as “The Other White Meat.”

Editor’s note: Pork magazine and the Center for Food Integrity presented the first everResponsible Pork Symposium, Feb. 5-7, in Indianapolis, Ind. Sponsors included: Michigan State University, Purdue University, Alpharma Animal Health, DSM, National Pork Board, Boehringer Ingleheim, Hubbard Feeds, PIC, Pfizer Animal Health and the National Pork Producers Council. Future issues of Porkwill feature more symposium discussions.