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Finding a place for pork in a changing marketplace

by 5m Editor
27 November 2006, at 12:00am

By Susan Jones and published by Alberta Pork - A benchmark study suggests industry efforts are changing consumer opinion of the pork industry for the better.

Alberta Pork

A benchmark study suggests knowledge has been — and will likely continue to be — the key to managing the concerns of consumers and facilitating better understanding between pork producers and their urban and rural neighbours.

Although food safety, health and production issues continue to drive consumer opinion of the Canadian pork industry, industry efforts to enhance its transparency appear to be paying off in the court of public opinion, says Susan Jones, vice-president of agribusiness, food and animal health for market research firm Ipsos-Reid.


Susan Jones, vice-president of agribusiness, food and animal health for lpsos-Reid.
“Canada’s pork industry is viewed overall as trustworthy, well regulated, compliant and solution seeking, with consumers becoming more confident in the industry’s ability to produce safe food and meet high standards of animal welfare,” says Jones.

“The study also reveals that general attitudes towards food are changing and becoming an important indicator of health among consumers. The pork industry will need to continue to find its niche in that environment.”

Changing attitudes towards the pork industry are, in part, the result of industry-wide efforts to engage the general public. Still, Jones says even this progressive approach to communication has failed to spur consumers to seek information on the pork industry and its practices. This means the onus is still on the industry to send the message that pork is a safe, responsibly-produced and nutritious source of meat protein.

One way to help send that message is for the Canadian pork industry to become more unified in efforts to meet consumer demands. “There is a tremendous amount of activity and a wide spectrum of initiatives, but many of them could be more effective if grouped together as part of a consolidated vision.”

Growing confidence

The Ipsos-Reid survey, conducted in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, measured consumer knowledge of the pork industry as well as public opinions of its food safety, animal welfare and impact on the environment. Although emphasis was placed on the opinions of nonproducers, the 1,600 survey participants represented Canadians from a range of urban, rural and semi-rural communities. Conducting the survey over three “legs” — in 1999, 2002 and 2004 — enabled the researchers to examine trends over time and by region.

The survey revealed that non-farming Canadians are, overall, confident in the integrity of the pork industry. Although positive opinions of the pork industry fell behind those of other agricultural sectors, noticeable growth was observed over the course of the survey, with the percentage of participants holding positive opinions increasing from 49 percent in 1999 to 59 percent in 2004.

Here’s an overview:

Food safety. This was the pre-eminent concern among participants. At the same time, participants were generally confident in the safety of Canadian pork, with nine out of every 10 respondents rating it as somewhat safe to very safe. “Consumers are feeling more confident in the industry’s production practices,” says Jones. “They also have tremendous faith in the power of regulatory systems to keep their food safe.”

Most participants were satisfied with the safety of pork for the simple reason that they had never gotten sick from it. However, there were concerns based on misperceptions of the use of hormones (which the industry does not use) and antibiotics in production and the “tweaking” of the food supply with genetically modified products.

Animal welfare. This is an issue which remains a concern among consumers, says Jones. However, 51 percent of the survey participants felt hogs were somewhat to very well treated, with the number rating them as very well treated increasing from 12 to 18 percent between 2002 and 2004.

“They believe the animals are sufficiently provided with food, clean water and shelter because it makes sense from an economic perspective. A farmer isn’t going to make money off a hog if it’s not healthy, well fed and cared for.” There appeared to be a bias against intensive livestock operations, however. “Participants saw large production units and corporate ownership as a negative trend and associated them with poor treatment of animals.”

Environmental impact. Perhaps the most worrisome trend is public concern over the environmental impact of the hog industry, with 53 percent describing hog farming as environmentally unfriendly. “As a criticism of the industry, environmental impact rose from a distant fourth place in 1999 to the point where it is now the number two issue on the minds of consumers,” says Jones. Respondents gathered most of their information on the pork industry from the mainstream media. At the same time, public knowledge about the hog farming process is falling and many are simply not interested in learning more.

“In 2002, for example, 23 percent of those who said they knew nothing about the industry said they wanted to learn more. By 2004, only 14 percent wanted to learn more. In the foreseeable future we can expect consumers to know little about the industry and to not seek information proactively.”

The health factor

Consumer attitudes towards food are changing at a rapid pace. As a result, it has become a key indicator of how people view their health. This is partly due to an aging population eating foods believed to enhance health and longevity, says Jones. The high profile of obesity concerns in the media has also driven this perspective.

The pertinent question for the pork industry, then, is where its product fits in this changing marketplace. Despite industry efforts to present pork as a lean source of meat protein, pork is still often viewed as an unhealthy meat, says Jones. If there’s a bright side to this perception, it’s that many consumers are having a hard time determining what “healthy” means — many consumers are frustrated over what they see as fluctuating definitions of what is healthy and what is not.

There are opportunities to be discovered in this shifting marketplace, says Jones. One of these is the convenience food market. “People today are over-busy and forgetting how to cook, and that has helped drive the convenience market. At the same time, they are critical of manufacturers for, as they see it, not providing healthier convenience food options.”

And then there’s the fact that healthfulness is still not the only thing consumers are looking for in their food — quality, price, flavour, consistency and freshness are also factors consumers value. Says Jones, “If it tastes like sawdust, it won’t matter how healthy it is; people are still not going to eat it.”

Knowing the customer

Pork producers feel they’re very to somewhat knowledgeable about what Canadian consumers want from the food they buy. According to the Canadian Farm Trends survey (2005), 55 percent of the pork producers surveyed said that all or most of their production practices are geared towards meeting consumer demand. Interestingly, producers find information about consumers the same way consumers find information about them: through the mainstream media.

A sacred trust

In many cases, the pork industry is already on the right track where it comes to addressing consumer needs, says Jones, and particularly in the fields of safety and quality assurance. “Safety is a sacred trust. The industry has to be congratulated for maintaining that and enabling people to say ‘I’ve never had a problem with pork and never gotten sick from it.’ “That, along with maintaining a dialogue with the media and the general public, is key to getting pork ‘on the list’ in today’s marketplace.”

Surveys key to sustainability

The Ipsos-Reid and University of Guelph surveys are examples of Alberta Pork efforts to enhance the social sustainability of the pork industry, says Jurgen Preugschas, chairman of Alberta Pork.

“The primary goal of Alberta Pork is to position the Alberta pork industry as vital, sustainable and valued in the agri-food business and society in general. Because of this, we frequently commission surveys to help gauge the relationship of the pork industry to society. It helps us to properly address issues and concerns in a proactive manner.”

For more information on the pork industry, visit Alberta Pork’s industry services Web site at www.albertapork.com or its consumer site at www.albertapork.ca.

October 2006