Consumers are gravitating to claims that align with their values—social, environmental or nutritional, and that has created a strong push towards an increase in natural meat sales in the supermarket.

Rick Stein, vice president, fresh foods, for the Arlington, Virginia-based Food Marketing Institute, says it’s important for retailers to keep pulse with shoppers and understand their motivations for such a planned purchase.

“We know from our Power of Meat research that two-thirds of customers look for ‘better-for-me’ options when buying meat and poultry, with a focus on leaner options and various production attributes,” he says. “Our consumer research points to how grass-fed items, along with natural and free-from items—such as antibiotics, hormones and steroids—are the top claims consumers desire in their meat departments.”

Although consumer confusion is a barrier to fully comprehending many of these claims, FMI’s research indicates that consumers do seem to gravitate towards packaging with claims. Therefore, Stein says, food retailers are embracing ways to deliver a stronger narrative for their shoppers that offers transparency, whether that’s through more knowledgeable employees, better signage or even social media engagement.

“Food retailers seek to provide their customers with a variety of product choices, and at the lowest cost possible, which enables shoppers to express their unique preferences – including a growing number of certified organic options, which are from animals that have not been treated with antimicrobials,” Stein says. “Additionally, grocery stores strive to provide customers with information that helps guide them in making the best choices for themselves and their families.”

The natural category is on the rise, and evolving. Consumers not only want to know where their food comes from, but how animals are raised and handled, and they want to be able to identify brands they can trust.

According to a recent survey conducted by Golden, Colorado-based Coleman Natural Foods, 63% of consumers are looking for protein that has been humanely raised, 72% want no artificial ingredients, 62% want no antibiotics and 7 in 10 want meat raised in the USA.


A Defining Evolution

Mel Coleman, Jr., vice president of Coleman Natural Foods, notes in the ’80s, there was a small but growing number of consumers asking for meats from livestock raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.

“To meet that demand, and because most of those consumers were shopping at natural food stores, my dad jumped on the opportunity to raise cattle without the use of antibiotics or added growth hormones and decided he would call it ‘Natural,’ thinking that these meats would be a perfect descriptor that would resonate with natural food store shoppers,” Coleman says. “He soon learned that label claims, like natural, needed to go through the USDA’s arduous label process.”

Months later, after numerous meetings in Washington D.C., the USDA defined “Natural” specifically relating to how livestock were raised—without the use of antibiotics or added growth hormones. Within a year, the definition was changed to include meats that are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.

In the ’90s, consumer demand for meats from livestock raised without the use of growth hormones and antibiotics became an increasingly hot topic and many major companies eyed the opportunity and began to adapt.

Although the original USDA definition for natural has been changed to focus more on how meat items are processed, the demand for naturally-raised meats has evolved past what was once called a trend to a growing segment in most retailers’ meat cases.

“Consumers today are looking more at the way the animal was raised as an important factor in choosing their meat purchases and eating habits,” Coleman says.

Bob Schultz, brand ambassador for Brawley, California-based Brandt Beef, distributed by One World Beef, says the company has experienced consumers demanding a “true natural” beef—something with attributes that extend beyond the basic “all natural” that the USDA has marketed for the last 30-plus years.

“Additionally, organic has become a popular term. Altogether, more and more consumers want to know what their protein are fed, where they are raised, and the conditions in which they were raised,” he says. “We put huge focus on telling our story. We utilize mason jars with our cattle feed to demonstrate the quality of our feed for people to see and touch. We provide customers with photos and print collateral that show our process. Our goal is to be transparent. Consumers want to be educated on what they are eating.”

Lisa Scebbi, marketing director, regional beef, for JBS USA, based in Greeley, Colorado, says during the last few years, consumers have extended beyond the natural processing definition and are now looking deeper into the raising practices that define natural.

“We see growth across the natural raising practices such as USDA Certified Organic, 100% Grass Fed Beef and no antibiotics ever/no added hormones categories. As such, we are experiencing overall expansion of the ‘natural’ shelf space at retail,” she says. “Beef is currently leading the charge across all the categories within the ‘natural’ section at retail.”

Christie Zimmerman, product standards manager for Lakewood, Colorado-based Natural Grocers, says regenerative farming is a major topic in today’s natural/organic meat space.

“It’s the major conversation for suppliers because it combats the notion that all meat is bad or all meat is destroying the environment,” she says.

She explains regenerative farming and specifically, cattle raised regeneratively do the opposite, they help re-build the soil, help the land’s ability to retain water and vital nutrients and restores a natural balance to the ecosystem.

“True regenerative practices help combat climate change rather than contribute to it. Within the greater conventional beef industry, they will continue to be vilified by the public because they refuse to evolve and continue to fight nature rather than work to save it and work within it holistically,” she says. “It supports the consumer trend of wanting to support companies who are doing good while also producing a product.”


Increasing Rapidly

Charlie Bell, manager of meat and seafood sales at ACME Markets, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, has noticed a big uptick in sales for both natural and organic meats over the past year or two.

“Right now, we are carrying beef, chicken, pork, turkey and lamb, all aimed at a more educated consumer who reads the information out there and is looking to obtain more natural foods,” he says. “The millennials are into the healthier and better-for-the planet options out there, and that’s given rise to the category in a big way.”

Last fall, Coleman Natural Foods became the first national pork producer to introduce third-party certified 100% crate-free production standards for both gestation and farrowing, furthering its commitment to give consumers what they want.

“More and more people—especially younger generations—are going the natural meat route, and we will continue to be at the forefront of change to keep up with the demand we see and provide what they are asking for,” according to Coleman.

Ozlem Worpel, senior brand manager for Tyson Fresh Meats, based in Springdale, Arkansas, says the company offers its own Trusted Path program, which traces individual cuts and grinds back to the place of origin through a rigorous process, including the use of DNA TraceBack technology.

“In addition to wanting meat labeled natural, consumers are seeking out meats that are ‘Never Ever,’ meaning they have never been given antibiotics or added hormones and are fed a 100% vegetarian diet,” she says. “These consumers also want to know where their food comes from and want to be assured the animals were responsibly raised.”

Scebbi notes the natural meat category continues to grow because of social and environmental reasons, which is why JBS offers multiple programs across beef, pork and chicken to help retailers grow the category.

“Consumers are removed from food and agricultural production, and they continue to seek information to understand how food is grown and raised,” she says. “The increased conversation around antibiotic resistance, popular diets, nutritionist and dietitian recommendations, sustainability and animal welfare have created a focused energy to this section of the meat case, thus creating more demand for natural meats.”


Marketing Matters

Obviously, the best way for supermarkets to market natural meats is to have them available to consumers, and advertise it, because if they don’t, people will take their baskets elsewhere.

“While consumers are demanding more claims within the natural section, they also expect a quality eating experience,” Scebbi says. “This will drive repeat purchase and growth for retailers.”

According to Worpel, the best way to market natural meats is to educate the consumer on the different claims on the packaging and their meaning.

“Displaying materials at the meat case that help explain the production process and what separates natural and never ever meat from the other offerings is crucial,” she says. “For example, Open Prairie Natural Meats has a wide selection of POS materials and educational materials to help consumers and meat managers understand the program and its unique attributes.” 

At ACME Markets, natural meats are highlighted regularly in weekly circulars and often put on sale to drive customers to the meat department.

“Social media is also a great way to get information out to our customers, both from us and our meat vendors who are trying to reach younger generations,” Bell says. “Some of the cooking shows might say, this particular brand of natural meat is available at ACME, which gets our name out there.”

Schultz says supermarkets should look for ways to communicate the “natural” story, explaining it can be a video on a monitor, a banner, or even a point-of-sale document.

“Consumers want to know more about their beef today than ever before, especially with all the misconceptions there out there about meat,” he says.

Coleman recommends retailers educate their staff on what the claims on the labels mean, offer educational materials such as in-store signage and social media content, and encourage consumers to read the labels.

Zimmerman notes consumers want to trust the labels on what they buy mean something, and they are paying close attention to how stores market their natural meats. She suggests retailers should explain the high on-farm standards that result in label claims that are meaningful to the customers and not simply rely on fancy marketing that is deceptive.

“Transparency continues to be the key to engaging with the natural/organic consumer,” she says. “The points of differentiation and transparency are in positive animal welfare, how the product helps the environment rather than destroys it, and how the product supports family farms and ranchers versus giant corporations taking advantage of farmers. These are the big concerns for consumers and retailers that do well explaining how their supply chain supports these areas will be rewarded.”