Consumer food-buying behavior is evolving at perhaps an unprecedented pace, and the retail fresh pork category is squarely in the center of that trend.

Curating your retail meat case to make sure you’re staying on top of those trends can be a challenge or an opportunity — depending on how well you know your customers. To help its retail partners better understand today’s fresh pork consumers, Midan Marketing conducted research to find out where consumers are shopping, how often and, most importantly, what drivers lead them to choose one package of pork over another.

Conducted in September, the research aimed to learn consumers’ priorities coming out of the pandemic, amid record high inflation — especially at the meat case — and with a possible recession looming.

It’s hard to overstate inflation’s impact on consumers’ food choices — and fresh pork is no exception.

According to the Midan report, 61% of pork consumers say price is one of the two most important factors they consider at the time of purchase. Forty-six percent said that price is their top factor — more than any other cause.

That said, pork has weathered the inflationary pressures better than other meats, said Michael Uetz, Midan co-founder and principal.

“When we look at pork sales through a historical lens, we see that during inflationary periods consumers are apt to trade down from beef to poultry, but US consumption of pork stays about the same,” Uetz said.

According to Midan estimates, the average American eats about 51 or 52 pounds of pork per year. And while the industry has seen quality improvements over the years, it hasn’t typically been accompanied with corresponding cost increases, Uetz said.

“Value hasn’t changed at the case. Pork loins are still as affordable as they’ve ever been.”

For years, pork was typically priced between poultry and beef, he added. Now pork is often cheaper than poultry.

With inflation impacting everyone, the fresh pork case is one of the places where Uetz thinks retailers can take advantage of the category’s relative price stability, and keep people in the animal protein category.

“Pork is one of the ‘bridge’ proteins where you still get all the flavor, you still get all the benefit of having a center of the plate pork chop, but it won’t break the bank.”

Other drivers of pork purchasing

Other top influencers of consumer retail pork-buying habits revealed by the research include quality claims like “premium” or “heritage breed,” which 28% ranked in the top two; and claims like “no antibiotics ever” or “organic,” which 23% ranked in the top two.

At the other end of the spectrum, environmental claims and the color of the meat were the least important influencers tested, with only 12% of pork consumers ranking each in their top two influencers.

Customers surveyed by Midan also said they’re looking for on-label callouts about quality and production claims that they understand. They want to be better educated, Uetz said, about the products they’re buying at the supermarket.

For instance, more than 70% of pork consumers said they’re not familiar with the term ‘Certified Duroc,’ which is one of the breeds consumers are most likely to see on packages or describing a product online. 

Midan also found that the importance of quality claims can vary widely based on consumers’ ethnic identities, ages and other demographic factors.

For instance, quality claims are more important to Asian American consumers than to the general pork consumer. For Gen Zs and millennials, meanwhile, the absence of GMOs is an important quality factor, and for Gen X and Baby Boomer shoppers, a “Raised in the USA” claim suggests high quality.

As a result, it’s crucial for retailers to know which quality claims are most important to which customers.

“There are more claims on pork packages today than ever before,” according to Midan. “As consumers wrestle with tough economic times, they want to be sure they’re getting the most out of their grocery budget. At the meat case, this can mean turning to package claims they believe indicate high quality.”

Unlike beef, pork products don’t have a quality grading system, so consumers have defined what they believe constitutes quality pork. The top indicators of pork quality, according to today’s consumers are:

  • No added hormones 
  • No antibotics ever 
  • No growth promotants 
  • All natural

Retailers: get ahead of consumers

Pork tends to be a planned purchase – more so than poultry or beef.

As a result, retailers have to get on the customers’ shopping lists earlier, which for pork consumers, means they need motivating, Uetz said. “That means cadenced advertising of pork, possibly in the circular, or via an aggressive online campaign,” he said.

However they communicate with their customers, retailers need to make sure that pork has its fair share of the rotation of both advertising, menuing and recipes.

Another tip: consumers will remain focused on animal welfare, and retailers and their supplier partners need to communicate that they are too.

“This will be a good starting point for talking to consumers about disease resistance in pork and clarifying labeling terms,” Uetz said. “Now is the right time for the industry to begin the strategic groundwork to educate consumers about relevant pork industry topics and issues to build awareness and drive sales in the long term.”

Takeaways for producers 

The Midan research was not designed just with retailers in mind. It also included questions tailored specifically to aid producers.

For instance, the study found that consumers generally don’t understand pork production terms or issues. Some of the terminology that consumers are least familiar with relates to hot industry topics that include:

  • 76% are unfamiliar with “Prop 12 Ready” pork
  • 76% are unfamiliar with “Ractopamine Free” pork.
  • Consumers are willing to learn, though.

About a third of pork consumers reported interest in learning more about terms like Certified Duroc (34%), disease-resistant (34%) and climate-smart (34%) pork.

The consumer groups most interested in learning more did vary depending on the term, with Millennials and Generation X consumers more interested in learning about disease resistance while carbon neutral pork was of particular interest to consumers with kids at home.

“As you’re crafting your brand story, consider an educational component that helps advance consumer knowledge of breeds and/or production practices,” the report recommends to producers.

Midan tested 29 pork claims using a best-worst style ranking to get a definitive ranking of the claims pork shoppers are looking for today.

Few pork attributes fared as well across all demographic groups as a simple “all natural” claim, which was also found to be a quality indicator for many (55%) pork consumers.

“Without established quality claims like USDA grades that exist for beef, consumers are left to define what they think makes pork high quality – and it’s clear that how the animal was raised is a big factor. Leaning into these raising claims and using them, as applicable, to tell consumers more about the fresh meat they’re purchasing can give your consumers peace of mind while simultaneously signifying to them that the pork they’re eating is worth the price.”

As a category, sales of fresh pork are predicted to rise slightly in the next year for several reasons, Utes said.

One is that for many of the fastest growing segments of the US population, pork is the meat they associate with their home country — it’s the most-consumed protein, for instance, in China and Asia in general, and the number two protein in Mexico and Latin America in general.

“As we become a nation of new immigrants here at home, pork should have a nice renaissance and hopefully a sales lift across the board,” Uetz said.

Are value-added products becoming more popular, or have producers backed off, given inflation?

Value-added is another category that’s a perfect fit for fresh pork, according to Midan.

“The most recent stats we’ve seen is that frequency of purchasing value-added meat and poultry has increased steadily for the last several years,” Uetz said. “In 2022, 26% of consumers reported purchasing value-added products frequently with an additional 41% reporting they sometimes purchase these items.”

One of the reasons why consumers purchase value-added meat or poultry products is because it keeps them from having to buy all the different ingredients separately, and Uetz expects that trend to continue.