IT'S "a frustrating time" for pork producers, who are embracing every possible conscientious practice to handle their animals but who are being accused of abuse by activist groups, especially over the way they house sows, according to Jarrod Sutton with the National Pork Board.
There is a feeling of "vulnerability," he said.
However, it's also a difficult time for producers' customers in the foodservice and retail sectors whose brands and competitive positions are being threatened by the same activist groups unless a restaurant or supermarket takes a certain position on those housing systems, Sutton said.
In the aftermath of decisions many restaurants and supermarkets made to drop lean, finely textured beef from their kitchens and stores, demand for pork becomes fragile, he said.
Sutton, assistant vice president for channel marketing at the Pork Board, talked with Feedstuffs about steps the board is taking to respond to this situation, especially in light of a resolution its producer-delegates adopted at the National Pork Forum last March.
The resolution called for "definitive" directions on sow housing and outreach to customers to explain what could be unintended consequences of customers' pronouncements on sow housing that could decrease animal welfare and increase the costs of production and, therefore, the cost of pork (Feedstuffs, March 12).
Most sows -- 83% -- are housed in individual stalls during their gestation periods, but customers, pressured by activist groups, are calling on producer-suppliers to transition to group housing for sows during gestation.
"Our choice was to be mad or get into their (customers') world. Our solution is to become the answer to their problem," Sutton said.
The "solution" will be a new program called "No More Surprises" in which Pork Board staff will broaden the board's outreach to meet with customer representatives and talk about issues facing pork production today, from antibiotics to sow housing.
In the past, he said, meetings were limited to meat procurement and merchandising personnel to plan pork promotions, but decisions concerning a company's social policy were being made at different levels, e.g., by sustainability officers.
Those sustainability officers were making decisions without communicating with or tapping the knowledge of the merchandising level, Sutton said, and without checking activist groups' statements with the Pork Board or the National Pork Producers Council.
In one recent case, he recalled, the board's marketing staff was actually planning a promotion with a company's merchandisers on one floor while the company was announcing a position on sow housing on another floor.
In most cases, Sutton said, a company makes an announcement and afterward notifies its supplier, which then explains the issues and the problems surrounding the company's position. "That's the uh-oh moment" for the customer that the board's new program will seek to prevent, he said.
"It's a plan to open doors, build relationships, participate in policy discussions and keep the activists from smearing our brand," Sutton said. "It's a full-court press."
He noted that webinars that reached significant groups of customers already have been conducted, and the first face-to-face meetings were scheduled to begin last week. He said producers will be updated on progress at the 2013 Pork Forum in March.
Sutton said the concept of the No More Surprises program is to "arm" customers with facts before they are given one-sided stories about pork production practices from other sources so there won't be any more surprises for customers.
"It's amazing" how little officials at foodservice and restaurant companies know about pork production -- as well as other aspects of agriculture and food production, he said.
This is not meant as a criticism, Sutton emphasized, because companies need to be focused intensely on making profits to return value to shareholders.
Accordingly, merchandisers need to sell during every hour of every day of every week, he said, and pork producers can't expect them to be well versed on how "a pig becomes pork. We are just a piece of a piece of a piece of their business."
This is why it's important to stop the surprises for them, he said.
It's also important because consumers "are just not that aware of or routinely concerned about" the issues, Sutton said, citing the Pork Board's consumer research.
Consumers trust that retailers in the foodservice and supermarket sectors will do everything possible to ensure that the food supply is produced responsibly and safely, he said, so pork producers need to "arm" retailers with facts they can use in consumer interactions.
The "good news," Sutton said, is that a number of the issues are straightforward, and consumers accept explanations about "why we do something, how we do it and how we are trying to make it better."
The not-so-good news is that the facts are often not enough, and consumers need to have confidence in pork producers -- to have confidence in food suppliers -- "before they'll believe our facts," he added.
Retailers who are armed with the facts will have the information they need to hold onto consumer confidence, Sutton said.
The Pork Board also is conducting research to help producers decide on sow housing options, including individual versus group housing systems.