LATE last month, the National Pork Board (NPB) announced that it would convene an industry task force to consider a wide range of consumer issues — including animal care, sustainable pork production and other challenges — to define a future vision for the industry and the pork checkoff.
Beginning this month, the 16-member panel will embark on a year-long process to review research, market data and the opinions of industry leaders and then set a strategic vision for the industry through 2020. The primary goal of the task force is to assess the pork checkoff's role in an ever-changing world and set priorities that can help pork producers better meet customer needs.
The board's current five-year strategic plan was unveiled in 2009 and will be completed next year. Through that process, the pork checkoff defined three critical issues: (1) protecting a producer's freedom to operate, (2) enhancing U.S. and international consumer demand for pork and (3) making U.S. pork producers more competitive in the global marketplace.
NPB chief executive officer Chris Novak described the planning process in terms of asking industry experts a simple question: "What if?"
"In the hands of pork producers who have a vision for how we can better serve consumers, 'what if?' is an incredibly powerful tool to explore what we can attain as an industry," Novak said. "The last time we asked that question, we articulated an industry vision to become more responsible, sustainable, professional and profitable. We've made great progress these past four years, but we know we can achieve more through a focused planning effort that unites producers, processors and customers."
For the first time, the planning process will bring together pork producers, animal health experts, packers, processors, food distributors and foodservice and retail experts. In addition to eight pork producers, the panel includes representatives from Cargill Meat Solutions, Domino's Pizza, Purdue University, Hormel Foods, JBS USA and Smithfield.
"Only through sharing information with each other and truly looking at our industry through the eyes of its key partners can we fully assess the challenges and opportunities that are ahead," Novak said. "For me, strategic planning comes down to analyzing three fundamental questions: Where are we today? Where do we want to be? How do we get there together?"
Novak said the panel will use a variety of tools to engage the industry in the planning process, including producer surveys and outreach to customers and supply chain partners.
One of the issues that may arise during the planning process is a perceived need for a pork quality grading system in the U.S.
Novak and NPB vice president of science and technology Paul Sundberg told Feedstuffs earlier this year that research on pork quality would be a larger focus of checkoff investments in 2014 and 2015.
"The quality conversation is in its infancy," Sundberg explained. "Our consumer preference study in 2011 led to the cooking temperature change. Now, we're trying to gauge consumer attitudes and the perception of pork quality and then determine how we can drive that through the pork supply chain."
That temperature change is a reference to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food safety guidelines, which now call for a minimum internal cooked temperature of 145 degrees F for pork muscle cuts, as opposed to the previous 160 degrees F standard that tended to result in a pork chop that was too dry or not as tender as a beef steak cooked to an equivalent medium or medium-rare doneness.
Sundberg described the early conversation on pork quality as an effort to "raise the tail end of the bell curve." NPB's efforts to communicate proper cooking of pork continue as well, but with a goal of helping consumers better understand how to best cook various cuts of pork.
Even so, there is no pork quality grading system in the U.S. akin to what is utilized in the beef industry, differentiating on a quality basis the merits of one carcass from another. Because of that, there is no incentive, economically speaking, for producing a higher-quality carcass.
A 2013 study conducted by Kansas State University economists Glynn Tonsor and Ted Schroeder concluded that the lack of a system has caused an "economically significant variability in pork quality present in retail meat counters" and that the industry currently has a very limited understanding of consumer preferences related to pork.
In addition, the study found that the industry lacks the ability to accurately measure quality in "an acceptable way that is highly associated with end user value and that could facilitate further exchange of quality and associated pricing information within the industry's supply chain."
Economist Steve Meyer, in an article for National Hog Farmer earlier this month, said it's time for the industry to get serious about pork quality after several suboptimal eating experiences in recent weeks. Analyzing pork cutout values over the past 15 years, he pointed out that the two lowest values on record for pork loins were recorded in August and September of this year and that pork bellies have routinely sold for 1.5 times the cutout value this year.
"What does bacon (from pork bellies) have that loins don't? I would argue that the important factors are flavor and convenience," he said.
Meyer said the bottom line for the industry is that "we must begin paying for quality" and start penalizing poor-quality loins — something that simply isn't possible under the current system.