A recent Consumer Reports survey revealed that 43% of consumers “always” or “often” buy meat and poultry raised without antibiotics at the supermarket. In fact, sales of free-from products—be it free from added hormones, steroids or animal byproducts—have been on the upswing for years.
Mel Coleman, Jr., vice president of Golden, Colorado-based Coleman Natural Foods, says no-antibiotics-ever has become a “table stakes” quality for most meat and poultry that is sold at retail these days.
“Consumers today are concerned about finding foods with all-natural ingredients of course, but their attention is turning more to the way animals are raised as an important factor in choosing their meat purchases and eating habits,” he says. “As a pioneer in the natural industry, we have always held ourselves to high standards in humane animal care, handling and transportation practices.”
To use this claim, he explains, source animals cannot be administered antibiotics in their feed, water or by injections at any point in their life. This includes ionophores, even though they are recognized as antibiotics by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“At Coleman Natural Foods, we believe antibiotics have a finite purpose specific to treating disease or illness,” Coleman says. “Our protocols call for treatment of any animal suffering from an illness, disease or injury requiring antibiotics. However, treated animals are removed from the program, then sold to alternative markets, never to Coleman customers.”
Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Fresh Meats produces the Open Prairie Natural Meats brand, which was started with “never ever” specifications in response to the growing trend to free-from products and to meet growing demands for wholesome, natural products.
“Consumers are seeking out meats that are minimally processed and have never been given antibiotics, added hormones or growth promotants and are fed a 100% vegetarian diet,” says Ozlem Worpel, senior brand manager at Tyson Fresh Meats. “These consumers also want to know where their food comes from and want to be assured the animals were responsibly raised.”
The Open Prairie Natural Meats brand works with independent farmers and ranchers that have mastered the practice of raising cattle and hogs in an environment focused on reducing stress while respecting the land and natural resources.
“One unique program that our Open Prairie Natural Meats team developed is the 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,” Worpel says. “We’re proud to say Open Prairie Natural Meats is the first consumer brand in the United States to offer this level of traceability in both beef and pork products.”
Megan Ernst, senior marketing manager for Oakwood, Georgia-based Wayne Farms, says the company noticed consumers and customers started asking for no-antibiotics ever and most times vegetarian-fed line of chicken products about five years ago.
That led to the company diving into how they could provide those products for their customers, and today the free-from segment represents more than 60% of sales in fresh chicken products.
Wayne Farms’ Naked Truth line consists of no antibiotics ever, vegetarian free, and no added hormones or steroids on the packaging.
“In terms of animal welfare, we have certification that goes up and beyond industry standards with the Global Animal Partnerships, meeting the needs of consciousness consumers who want justified proof from independent third parties,” Ernst says. “That’s not necessarily free-from, but definitely falls into what we see consumers ask for when asking for the free-from concept.”
No added hormones
A trend in “no added hormones” is another popular free-from claim that consumers seek.
The government does not allow the use of added hormones in raising hogs or poultry, however beta-agonists (growth promotants) such as ractopamine and zilpaterol are used to promote prophylactic weight gain. Animals given growth promotants gain weight more rapidly, reach market weight sooner, reduce production costs and often equate to lower prices at retail.
However, this is the antithesis of what “natural” consumers are looking for.
“We believe animals should be raised the way nature intended,” Coleman says. “That’s why we never allow the use of added growth hormones or other growth promotants. We believe that animals should be allowed to mature naturally, in a reduced stress environment.”
Apollo Heidelmark, meat cutter at Weavers Way Co-op, a Mount Airy, Pennsylvania-based natural foods grocery store, says the store’s customers have historically sought out products that are free from antibiotics, hormones, and other additives.
“Nowadays, we see more customers seeking not just grass-fed beef but locally-sourced grass-fed beef,” he says. “All of our poultry is without antibiotics. The only differences in options for our customers in our poultry program is natural versus organic, as we sell both options. Natural chickens are free from antibiotics in our store.”
Crate-free/third party certification
In 2018, Coleman Natural Foods became the first national pork producer to introduce third-party certified 100 percent crate-free production standards for both gestation and farrowing, becoming just one of two pork producers to hold American Humane Certified status.
Coleman meets or exceeds the more than 200 science-based animal welfare standards, and is audited by an independent, third-party auditor, Validus.
“Because crate-free is a new term, we need to be sure consumers understand what it means, and why they may be paying a little bit extra for crate-free natural pork,” Coleman says. “We’ve always strived to educate consumers through social media, point of sale and packaging that features authentic label claims that gain respect and brand loyalty.”
Natural is a word that resonates with consumers and it makes them feel good, but what the industry has lost, Coleman notes, whether in meats or many other products, is credibility and trust. USDA currently defines natural as “minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients.”
“The original definition of natural, that my dad, Mel Coleman, Sr., worked with the USDA to establish and regulate regarding how livestock is raised, is now diluted to only express how meat is processed and the ingredients in the product,” Coleman says. “Quite a departure from the original USDA definition for natural.”
Worpel believes the industry can change misconceptions through openness and transparency.
“Open Prairie Natural Meats offers an uncomplicated, ‘never ever’ protein choice committed to upholding high standards of openness,” she says. “We believe in open, honest communication with all of our partners, from independent ranchers and farmers who supply our cattle and hogs, to the customers who purchase our products.”
Ernst says the importance of having the “no” claim on the package alerts consumers that the products are safe to consume.
A Growing Segment
From lifestyle choices to medical motivations, a variety of reasons exist for the increase of foods with free-from claims in the marketplace. Some consumers are choosing foods free of specific food ingredients that fit within a certain lifestyle, while others are looking to easily identify foods to help them adhere to therapeutic diets.
Free-from claims also offer a convenient way to quickly identify foods that meet the needs for individuals with food allergies or food intolerances.
Heidelmark says these products are on the rise as customers have become more wary of the negative effects of antibiotics and other additives on their health and the environment.
“For poultry, we see an increased demand for organic chickens; however, the price difference between organic poultry and poultry that may be without antibiotics is often too significant for many customers,” he says. “Because of that price difference, we still sell substantial amounts of antibiotic-free—but not organic—poultry. We have found that the increase in interest in these types of products has been increasing the most in the last three years.”
Within poultry, data from Mintel shows that GMO-Free, organic, hormone free, and no additives/preservatives continue to grow in prevalence.
“Consumers continue to rank attributes that communicate free-from as most important to them, but are also skeptical over the trustworthiness of some of these claims,” says Monica Stewart, registered dietitian nutritionist for Tyson Foods. “Meat is ranked at the top of all categories where consumers are seeking free from claims.”
According to IRI, all-natural meat claims totaled $7.3 billion last year, and the numbers are on the rise.
There are a number of reasons that consumers desire free-from meat and poultry. In fact, a report conducted by Coleman Natural Foods showed consumers not only want to know where their food comes from, but how animals are raised and handled. The report revealed that 63% of consumers are looking for protein that has been humanely raised, 72% want no artificial ingredients, 62% want no antibiotics and a staggering 7 in 10 want meat raised in the USA.
“Healthier, more naturally raised animal equates to better quality meat, and taste,” Coleman says. “Antibiotic resistance is a huge issue in both animals and humans. Choosing to purchase and consume protein that has been raised with no antibiotics ever is an important way consumers can ‘cast their vote’ helping to combat that issue.”
Education at the Store Level
Supermarkets can benefit from this trend by educating the staff on what the claims on the labels mean, offering educational materials such as instore signage and social media content and encouraging consumers to read labels.
“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,” Worpel 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. The Tyson Fresh Meats Team has done immense research in the natural category and we can use our insights to help retailers drive natural meat sales as the category continues to grow.”
With a core business in natural foods, Weavers Way Co-op is already positioned as a purveyor of free-from products. However, Heidelmark notes it does provide more signage than many retailers so that customers know exactly where the meat and poultry comes from and how it was raised.
“We sticker individual products when it is local and also when it is grass-fed,” he says. “We write stories about the farms we source from and even take tours of them with staff and, on occasion, even our customers.”