By CHERYL DAY
AMERICAN consumers rated their satisfaction with pork higher than the previous year, according to a recently released consumer tracking study conducted by the pork checkoff.
"In the checkoff's latest tracking study, more U.S. consumers reported an increased enjoyment of pork," said John Green, director of strategic marketing for the pork checkoff. "Our targeted pork champions grew to 43% of all U.S. households in November, up from 27% in the 2010 study."
In addition, the results of the study show that the total percentage of pork eaten by the target consumer grew significantly since the "Pork. Be Inspired" campaign was introduced in 2011 — 84% consumed pork at home and 80% ate pork away from home.
The tracking study results are in tune with real per capita expenditures (RPCEs), the pork checkoff's mechanism for measuring domestic marketing.
RPCEs for all meat and poultry increased in 2013, with pork gaining the most, rising 5.6%. In a year when real disposable income remained flat and meat prices rose, the increased demand for meat and poultry suggests that taste and preference drove consumers' animal protein purchasing decisions, according to Dr. Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics.
Meyer noted that, while it was a good year for all meat and poultry, the larger RPCE gain by pork suggests a shift in consumer preferences, especially at a time when the industry is facing unflattering publicity and never-ending challenges over production practices.
"While our customers may be having some problems with some things, our consumers either do not notice it or do not care," Meyer said. "They are willing to buy the product if we bring it to them at the right price and the right quality."
Furthermore, Chris Novak, National Pork Board chief executive officer, told Feedstuffs that, when looking closely at the measures of pork demand in the past year, there has been no evidence that consumers are substituting pork cuts to adjust for higher meat prices.
Still, the continuous upward trend in pork RPCE — reaching its highest monthly figure in 10 years in November and December 2013 — is a reflection of the pork checkoff's domestic marketing efforts with the Be Inspired campaign and introducing new names for pork cuts to differentiate their value based on the quality of various cuts.
"We are moving into an interesting time for consumers by now moving towards an opportune place where there can be some differentiation based on quality — the ability for consumers to still buy pork loin, pork chops but perhaps the lower-priced pork chop compared to a premium cut," Novak said.
While the new names for pork cuts were just introduced a year ago, Novak said the change was positively received by retailers and restaurants, with some grocery store chains ready to roll them out as soon as the announcement was made. In addition, last fall, restaurant chains began advertising the porterhouse chop, which he said is a sure sign of support.
"We continue to work with retailers, so if a consumer orders a porterhouse chop in a restaurant, then they can make certain they can walk into the grocery store and find the same cut," Novak said.
As domestic demand increased, U.S. pork exports slipped slightly in 2013, down 5% in volume and 4% in value, although it was still the third consecutive year that exports exceeded $6 billion.
"The majority of the issue was high supplies in competitive countries — for instance, Japan and South Korea," said Becca Hendricks, National Pork Board assistant vice president of international marketing.
Furthermore, U.S. pork exports face ongoing challenges in battling political barriers that block market access, and the value of the dollar also can reduce the U.S.'s competitiveness.
Despite the decline overall last year, pork posted strong exports in December, with Mexico, Central America, South America and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region all contributing to the slightly higher monthly total, which signaled upward momentum to start 2014.
Although exports to some markets were lower in 2013, new market opportunities continue to emerge, which is central to the pork checkoff allocation in international markets.
"It is important for U.S. pork to be diversified," Hendricks said. "The pork checkoff focus for the past years has been in emerging markets, including China."
Already tight pork supplies are being further constrained by porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, driving pork cutout values higher, so the growth in U.S. exports will be limited in 2014.
Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecasted 4% growth for this year, Meyer said supply limitations will hinder any increase in U.S. exports.