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Grilling season serves up opportunities for pork

Checkoff working in foodservice, retail to meet needs of evolving consumer trends.

It is certainly an unusual time to say the least, but fortunately one of the things that is good about right now is that grilling season has launched, Tara Ann Dugan, director of research and insights with the National Pork Board, told Feedstuffs.

While cookouts are going to be a bit more intimate this summer and look a little different, she said consumers are excited to get out of the kitchen and onto the grill.

Going into COVID-19, meat sales were relatively as flat as they could be, but that significantly changed.

“We were looking at single-digit change in one direction or the other, and for this period, with so many people stocking up on their meat buys, there’s been tremendous growth. The meat category overall has seen double-digit growth over the last several months, and pork is no different.”

In fact, Dugan said the pork category, in several instances, is actually outpacing the total meat category.

But, as consumer continue to buy up protein, many have purchased products or cuts that they wouldn’t typically purchase.

Dugan said the Pork Checkoff team has a lot of great, longstanding relationships with retail, foodservice and packers that has allowed them to “adjust and pivot” as needed.

With many of the affected packing plants back online, Dugan said, “We are glad to start seeing fewer shortages at the store. We’ve conducted quite a bit of research to understand on a regular basis what consumer sentiments are about the industry and their retail experience. In the latest week, we’ve seen that the percent of consumers experiencing meat shortages is down versus when it was at its height.”

The checkoff is encouraged by this despite the fact that stores are still doing things like limiting some of the purchases consumers can make at the meat department.

Capitalizing on momentum

Besides working behind the scenes during the past couple months to keep product moving, the checkoff has also conducted several marketing campaigns to promote product, Dugan said.

One such foodservice campaign happened around Easter, enticing consumers to post pictures and share hashtags about some of the meals they were purchasing for their Easter dinner in the event that they weren’t preparing dinner. Consumers who participated were entered into a drawing.

The checkoff has partnered with retail partners, as well.

“Importantly, as consumers have been cooking and preparing a lot in their kitchens, we’ve provided a lot of different resources to them via Facebook or YouTube or other social channels that provide some really cool recipes for preparing pork.”

Regarding foodservice, Dugan said insight from research firm DataEssentials has revealed that 56% of consumers are still very concerned about COVID-19 and at least 55% of them are avoiding eating out. “So, folks are a bit reluctant, but they are getting back out there. Folks are craving some of the meals that they weren’t able to get at some of their favorite restaurants before. Slowly but surely they are getting back out there to be able to do so.”

Research was recently conducted to better understand the appeal of takeout and delivery. “Across all of the different behaviors that consumers have done differently with foodservice, takeout and delivery is one of the ones at the top of the list, Dugan said. “As things transition and we see what that next normal is, it’ll be interesting to see the life that takeout and delivery takes on.”

Meanwhile, there’s still opportunity for innovation. “Folks may still want to continue to have that takeout and delivery experience. As restaurants get up and running, completely and fully, they’ve got some opportunities to be able to meet those needs of consumers.” As for what may lie ahead, Dugan said, “No one has a crystal ball.”

Still, the industry is keeping its finger on the pulse of the ongoing and evolving trends.

“From a grilling standpoint, there are certain things we’re seeing. Consumers are really leaning toward smoking,” she said.

This was a trend that had some uptick in recent years, but now that folks are embracing that slower pace and also ultimately looking to stretch their dollars, Dugan said larger cuts really work for that.

From a retail perspective, opportunities include ribs and capitalizing on the larger, fresh cuts that are not only great for grilling but also aligned with the smoking trend. Retailers can also think about things like trading consumer up from franks to dinner sausage, she noted. “Those are some of the things we’re thinking about and having conversations with our partners on. We’ll continue to stay on top of the trends and sharing them.”

Outside of the gigantic spike in retail meat sales, Dugan said seeing consumers expand their horizons has been “pretty neat to see.” Additionally, people sitting down to eat dinner together, and even breakfast, has been a wonderful trend that has emerged during COVID-19.

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