"It all boils down to giving consumers a choice,” says Al Kober, director of meat sales and merchandising for Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa. “ We (retailers) present the product claims and let consumers choose what best fits their needs.” With the addition of organic and natural products to the meat case, consumers have even more options from which to choose.

“The challenge for a retailer is in knowing whether a natural or organic product will generate repeat sales to warrant carrying it ,” says Karen Boillot, National Pork Board’s director of retailer marketing. “Retailers also have to determine whether to feature these products in the full-service or self-service meat case.” Plus retailers have to deal with consumers’ perceptions that natural and organic pork products are more safe and healthful than traditional cuts, which isn’t necessarily true. Various researchers contend that natural and organic products aren’t better or safer, because the products can have higher microbial counts than traditional pork products.

The products tout the fact that they contain no antibiotics, hormones or drug residues. In reality, the same can most often be said for traditional meat products.

Kober says some consumers that purchase natural and organic products know what they’re paying for, but most aren’t well enough informed about the various issues surrounding these products.

That’s where the retailer comes in. They’re working to help consumers make an educated choice at the meat case. Producers trying to tap this niche market provide retailers with brochures explaining the production process and information about their particular products. But Kober admits, it’s tough getting the word out to consumers – they have to want the information.

Although these specialized products an’t taking over the meat case, they are gaining a noticeable presence. Just take a look at these Food Marketing Institute and USDA statistics about organic products:

  • USDA approved national organic standards in 2000, requiring all but the smallest farmers (sales less than $5,000) to meet the same criteria by mid-2002.
  • USDA is using private and government programs to certify organic farmers and processors.
  • Certified-organic livestock represent less than 1 percent of total U.S. production.
  • Organic product sales generated $7 billion in 2000.
  • Organic grocery industry sales in 2000, equaled 1.4 percent of total sales. That means organic products sill make up a small niche.
  • Still, organic products are gaining popularity. As of 2000, sales of organic foods grew 20 percent to 25 percent.
  • Organic and natural foods (of all kinds, not just meat) are available at 73 percent of U.S. grocery stores.
  • Today, 32 percent of U.S. consumers buy some organic products.

As for natural products, that’s a whole other ballgame. “It’s a difficult term to grasp,” says Kober. He notes that some producers use the term on “free-range” type products.

Clemens Markets is offering a new natural product from Hatfield Meats. Kober says the cuts have consistent color, size and tenderness. But, says they don’t match the end quality of enhanced (pumped) products, that mistake-proof pork for consumers.

Clemens has carried natural beef since the late 1980s and also carries some natural poultry products. These products are in the full-service meat counter, while the self-service area contains case-ready products.

When a retailer first starts carrying natural and organic products, they tend to give them more display room than necessary, notes Kober. Once they become part of consumer shopping patterns, retailers adjust the case-space accordingly.

Although organic products get more notoriety, Boillot believes retailers are looking to feature natural, rather than organic lines. That’s mainly because organic rules are more stringent, which increases the product cost. The retailer has to make sure it pays out in terms of profit. Retailers can reap many of the same benefits from natural products.

Boillot recommends that all pork chain participants become familiar with and understand USDA’s legislation outlining natural and organic products. You can learn more by going to Pork’s Web site at www.porkmag.com, and checking out NPB’s Q&A on the topic.

What is Organic Pork?

This includes products from hogs that have been raised – and meat products that have been processed – and handled in compliance with USDA’s Organic Standards. These standards involve entire processes in which synthetic inputs in all phases of animal production and meat processing are prohibited.

What is Natural Pork?

These products have been processed and handled in compliance with USDA’s natural standards. These standards prohibit the use of artificial ingredients, coloring or chemicals and require minimal meat processing.

For more answers to frequently asked questions about organic and natural pork, click here.