KANSAS CITY — During the pandemic, supermarkets saw a spike in pork consumption, buoyed by the comfort food bacon and sausage offer to many, plus the trend of incorporating pork-based dishes into diets.

This summer, pork prices hit record highs, according to the National Pork Board. In July, the USDA-AMS revealed the price of baby back ribs topped $5 a pound, 61% higher than a year ago and 94% higher than July of 2019.

When examining the market, the National Pork Board cites the return of foodservice as a reason that prices are so high, with companies racing to outbid each other to meet demand.

Earlier this summer, the Pork Board conducted a price ratio of pork ribs vs. briskets, and found that when comparing, the price was about equal, so baby back ribs have become less expensive relative to ribs than a year ago.

But that doesn’t seem to have hurt store sales, as demand is as strong as ever for both pork products according to many, and trends started during the pandemic continue today.

Todd Allen, director of meat and seafood at Raley’s Supermarkets, a chain headquartered in West Sacramento, Calif., noted pork has been very popular in 2021.

“At Raley’s, we sold a record number of pounds due to affordability and availability,” he said. “COVID impacted the category by driving costs up significantly and, to a small degree, affecting the availability because of much higher consumer demand.”

However, even with record-high costs of late, pork still remains a very affordable protein option.

“All products in the pork category are doing well, especially ribs, and we’ve seen a high level of consumer interest,” Allen said. “With more people now cooking at home, creative recipes and cooking styles have made the experience very rewarding for those who indulge. Another trend has been an increased level of interest in premium pork; claims such as antibiotic free and humanely raised are at the top of that list.”

Jay Avey, meat and seafood director at Homeland Food Stores, headquartered in Oklahoma City, noted value-added pork products such as marinated and in-meal solutions are driving the sales along with the fresh pork regional favorites ribs and pork butts for the at-home BBQ smokers.

“Convenience offerings are still growing,” he said. “Here in the Mid-South, fresh pork cuts for the BBQ Smoker will always be popular.”

Sales on fresh pork at Homeland is strong with near-equal sales from last year except for rib cuts.

“Enhanced and processed pork has increased year-over-year as customers are looking for convenience in meal solutions and possibly something different than what was available last year,” Avey said.

New pork products include a wide variety of value-added, ready to cook items that offer new, exciting and convenient meal solutions.

Pandemic challenges

Mike Merritt, senior director of marketing at Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods, noted that due to COVID-19, there has been a surge in consumers preparing food at home, including pork products.

“Even as restaurants have opened up, the retail demand is still high as many consumers are still preparing more meals at home than pre-pandemic,” he said. “Smithfield has responded to this increased demand by offering larger package sizes at retail to provide value to consumers and capture some of the demand normally filled by restaurants. In addition, we have launched new items to meet consumers’ increased demand for pork and unique flavor experiences.”

One category in which Smithfield Foods has launched multiple new items is marinated pork.

“Consumers are increasingly looking for more adventurous flavors and looking for the types of flavors at home that they would normally find at restaurants,” Merritt said. “Thus, we added a Salsa Verde and Tuscan Herb flavored marinated pork to our lineup. These are convenient, pre-marinated pork items that only require the consumer to pop them in the oven for a perfect, flavorful center-of-the plate protein. We are getting significant distribution around the country and have received very positive early reviews from consumers.”

The pandemic influenced mainly labor availability to process fresh and further processed pork. With the continued enhancement of workers’ compensation, this has placed challenges of getting live inventory through to consumers.

“Fresh pork is higher in cost than throughout last year’s pandemic, but with beef retail inflation rising significantly faster and at a greater rate, pork is again a better value for fresh protein,” Avey said. “Fresh poultry inventory is still volatile as labor inconsistencies in the east continue to play havoc.”

Megan Elliott, senior brand manager at Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, noted that with more time at home, the company saw consumers became savvier and more comfortable in the kitchen. As such, their confidence in cooking and serving meals with pork also grew during the pandemic.

“As a global branded food company, Hormel Foods has several brands that are great options for consumers, no matter the occasion,” she said. “We have a leading portfolio of popular brands for everyone from convenience BBQ items like Lloyd’s BBQ Shredded Pork tubs to Hormel Black Label bacon.”

Additionally, Hormel continues to use its insights-led innovation to develop products that are on trend and offer a ton of flavor options, such as its Our Columbus Charcuterie Tasting Board, which makes great use of pork offerings.

“Consumers are craving convenience now that life if getting busy again they need quick flavorful solutions that save time and still deliver on taste and quality,” Elliott said.

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods noted that pork sales volume increased during the third quarter of fiscal 2021 due to strong global demand and reduced production inefficiencies associated with COVID-19.

“We delivered a strong performance in a strong protein market,” Donnie King, Tyson Foods’ president and CEO, said in a company statement. “With trusted brands that met strong consumer demand, we have delivered 12 consecutive quarters of share gains in core business lines at retail.”

Marketing measures

At Raley’s, the stores have clearly defined sections for pork products with point-of-sale materials that highlight the attributes.

Raley’s instore pork displays are equal to that of beef, something that wasn’t always the case. Allen noted consumer interest dictates the space requirements, including “extra” displays of promoted items such as ribs.

“These sections include regular pork and premium, antibiotic-free pork,” Allen said. “We get the word out through team member education, which helps us address consumer questions and concerns instore. We have web-based consumer information available as well.”

Fresh pork, including fresh sausage, consist of roughly 25% of the fresh meat case at Homeland supermarkets.

“Independent floor displays are used for Ads and promos including multi-department, cross-merchandised mobile merchandiser displays,” Avey said. “We will combine several departments in and around the merchandiser to build a meal idea at the front end.”

Homeland stores also typically feature fresh pork weekly in its print and online ads, instore specials and displays.

“Both fresh and processed pork is a significant portion of our meat sales; more so than what you would see in other parts of the US,” Avey said.

For those retailers looking to beef up sales, industry experts note to showcase the rising popularization by adding more pork to the meat section, highlighting the lower prices, handing out pork recipes, and packaging pork bundles with ingredients popular in Asian dishes.

For more meat industry news, check out our meat & poultry page.