It was more than a year in the making, but patience has paid off for the parties involved in developing Marsh Signature Pork – a source-verified product line.

In March, the Indiana-based Marsh Foods rolled out the exclusive pork line in the company's prime-cut meat departments found in 58 of the 87 Marsh Supermarkets. The product line involves eight to 14 different cuts, which are the result of a collaborative effort between Marsh Foods, PIC, Indiana Packers Corp. and certified Indiana pork producers.

Marsh Supermarkets wanted something to set it apart from its competition. PIC and the pork producers involved wanted to accomplish the same thing – not to mention being able to secure a market, and hopefully more money. IPC came in as Marsh's packer of choice.

"This is a great example of the entire pork chain identifying and creating what the customer demands," says Gregg BeVier, president of PIC USA.

The genetic company hooked up with Marsh Supermarkets to conduct consumer research to determine the interest in a high-quality pork product. "You have to find out what consumers want and start from there," says Joe Leathers, vice president of PIC's consumer group.

Leathers also spent a lot of time behind the meat case talking to consumers. They expressed strong interest in a low-fat, Indiana-produced product. "Consumers told us what's most important to them is that the product is source verified, locally produced and locally processed," he says. That last fact surprised Leathers; he expected food safety to be consumers' top priority.

Through their research, the companies asked consumers to help name the product as well. "They told us if Don Marsh put his name on it, that meant more to them than USDA," relays Leathers. Keep in mind Marsh Supermarkets is family owned, and its shoppers know that.

A 90-day test of Marsh Signature Pork in limited stores revealed double-digit growth in dollar sales and tonnage. "In most meat departments if you had a single-digit percentage growth that would be good," says Leathers. "And we had no advertising, no marketing support and a 50-cent-per-pound higher price than other pork cuts."

The producers' role of course is to supply the hogs, but there is specific criteria tied to that responsibility. "The animals are from single-source genetics," says Leathers. The genetics in this case are PIC line 337, selected because it best fit the consumers' demands.

Producers also must meet a six-point certification standard that addresses consumers' concerns. It includes things like herd health and production protocols, the animal's diet, as well as the producer's manure management and animal handling practices.

White Oak Farms was the first supplier, but there are now four to five producers providing 600 to 900 pigs a week. Leathers expects those numbers to grow.

The hogs are shipped to IPC each Monday, where they are slaughtered, cooled, sorted and processed as a group. The producer, the trucker and the packing plant personnel all have to sign off on the load for identify preservation purposes, making the hogs traceable back to the farm.

"Everyone along the way has to play in this game in order for it to succeed," says Leathers. And he agrees that everyone must benefit.
Where do the benefits lie within this program?

Leathers says once the product line expands to use more of the carcass than the loin, the producers and processor should reap more of the financial benefit from the product's premium price tag. "We are looking at new products right now," he points out.

The product line currently focuses around an 11-rib center-cut loin, back ribs and tenderloin. The retail products are enhanced with a 7 percent sodium-phosphate solution (low by industry standards). Intra-muscular fat falls within 1 percent to 2 percent based on the National Pork Producers Council's scoring system, with no more than 0.8-inch external fat. A cut's color must score a two or three on NPPC's scale to make the grade.

Leathers adds that hog marketing weights had to be cut back to 250 to 270 pounds to maintain appropriate product size.

"This is the finest line of premium pork that we have ever sold in our stores," says Don Marsh, chief executive officer of Marsh Supermarkets, "and I believe it superior to any pork available anywhere in our market today." Marsh will offer a 100 percent money back guarantee if a customer is not satisfied with the product.

While Don Marsh quickly embraced the product, individual stores were a tougher sell. "No one likes change," says Leathers. But that's where the consumer survey, product testing and relationship building pays off.

Marsh Signature Pork is of course exclusive to Marsh Supermarkets, but Leathers says, "there is opportunity for projects like this."
PIC may develop similar programs with other producers, packers and retailers in the future says Leathers. He believes other producers may be able to do the same – "if they are willing to think outside the box there is great potential."

While these kinds of product ventures are not easy, they are a positive trend for an evolving industry.