Pork Remains the Dependable Protein in Meat Case

A return to cooking and greater variety in formats and flavors lift pork category, even as supplies and prices wobble
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
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 Pork Remains the Dependable Protein in Meat Case
Despite inflationary and supply chain pressures, grocers can rely on pork to provide shoppers with proteins that meet their dietary, taste and budget needs and to lift their own meat department sales.

It’s not quite a second-banana thing, but pork hasn’t been in the protein spotlight as much as animal-based counterparts like beef and chicken and, more recently, much-talked-about plant-based alternatives.

If pork is a somewhat quieter protein, it’s also a meat case stalwart: Per capita pork consumption has remained fairly steady over the years, at 52.0 pounds in 2020, 51.2 pounds in 2021 and a projected 51.1 pounds this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which projects that pork production will hit 27.3 billion pounds this year.

In the more recent marketplace, seasonal supply-and-demand trends that have traditionally shaped pork performance were upended as the pandemic affected production and processing throughout much of 2020, and as supply chain issues caused shortages in things like feed and medications in 2021. The latest wrinkle, of course, is inflation, with the Consumer Price Index for pork rising 13.7% from April 2021 to April 2022.

Even with such pressures, pork remains a dependable kind of meat. “Pork is on the same trajectory as total meat and many categories across the store — dollar gains that are boosted by inflation and year-on-year volume pressure,” notes Anne-Marie Roerink, principal and founder of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics. “However, when compared with 2019, the same amount of pork is selling as before the pandemic changed all shopping and consumption patterns.”

In fact, grocers can rely on pork to provide shoppers with proteins that meet their dietary, taste and budget needs and to lift their own meat department sales. As Roerink points out, pork comprises 13% of fresh meat dollars and 17% of fresh meat pounds, meaning that it tends to sell at a lower price per pound. “Pork’s favorable price point allows retailers to drive trips to the store,” she says, adding that IRI data shows that pork has been featured more often during the past year compared with other proteins like beef, chicken and turkey.

Those promotions can be effective for retailers, as inflation-minded consumers appreciate being pointed in the direction of value. “While three-quarters [of consumers] are looking for promotions, 43% say they are seeing less of them, and they are absolutely right,” explains Roerink. “Many categories across the store are running fewer promotions, and if they are promoting, discounts tend to be less deep. This has everything to do with the supply chain issues, and that’s where retailers’ ability to promote pork is helping consumers in today’s tough environment.”

Ozlem Worpel, director of fresh meats marketing at Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, agrees that meat departments can successfully merchandise pork in this operating environment. “We know that consumers are looking to economize without sacrifice,” observes Worpel. “As we saw in the 2022 [FMI] ‘Power of Meat’ study, the first step for many is to cut back on restaurant spending. People are looking to bring the restaurant experience home for everyday mealtime and for at-home entertaining. Retailers have a unique opportunity to provide inspiration for their shoppers and emphasize both quality and value, engaging consumers in new and creative ways.” 

The fact that consumers are savvier about buying and using pork is a boon to the category at a time when this protein is appealing for value reasons. “One of the silver linings of the last couple years was that consumers became more comfortable in the kitchen and expanded their repertoires of meals prepared at home,” adds Worpel. “Even now, as consumers are getting creative when balancing the equation for both quality and price, demand for high-quality protein at retail is still strong.” 

Pork Remains the Dependable Protein in Meat Case
Artisan-style pork-based products with a story, like dry-aged sliced Heritage Breed Prosciutto from True Story Foods, are gaining traction among shoppers seeking quality and variety

Fresh Pork Standouts

In this “next normal” environment, shoppers are seeking out fresh pork. According to data from Chicago-based IRI, total fresh pork dollar sales rose in 2021 by 0.5% to $7.2 billion. 

Within the fresh pork category, some products are doing particularly well.  Ground pork, for example, has benefited from an attractive price point and for versatility reasons as consumers have gained more experience in the kitchen over the past two years. IRI’s data shows that sales of ground pork jumped 6.3% over the past year. 

“Ground pork has done a great job in stepping in as something different, but equally easy to prepare and even more cost-effective,” affirms Roerink.

There’s room for enhancements in ground pork, however, as with other ground meats, she adds.  “We’ve also seen some great innovation, such as Hatfield’s mushroom-and-ground-pork blend, as well as pork burger patties ready for the grill,” remarks Roerink. “It’s these kinds of innovations that will catch the eye of the younger consumers.”

Fresh pork shoulder and ingredient cuts are also performing strongly. Pork shoulder sales rose 4.7%, while ingredient cuts climbed 7.7% from March 2021 to March 2022, according to IRI data.

Further, as summer gets underway, grocers will move more of other fresh pork cuts, thanks to their seasonal benefits. “Summertime is pork’s time to shine — nothing is better on the grill or in the smoker than ribs, brats or pork chops,” asserts Worpel. “While prices are higher this year than last, pork is still a good value, especially for a crowd. We anticipate a lot of cookout-related activity in the pork category this summer.”

Value-added fresh pork products, including pre-marinated and pre-seasoned items that have become a staple of grocery meat cases over the past two decades, also entice consumers looking to elevate their eating experience while not spending too much time in the kitchen. According to research shared by Tyson, 68% of shoppers purchased value-added meat sometimes or frequently in 2021, up from 37% in 2016. 

Several pork brands offer value-added offerings, such as Tyson’s Sweet & Smoky BBQ marinated pork loin and Smithfield’s Steakhouse Mushroom Marinated fresh pork loin filet. Grocers have added flavor to their private label value-added pork items, too, like Wegmans’ bourbon-marinated pork tenderloin. 

As consumer demand for sustainably produced and minimally processed foods continues to grow, the natural fresh pork segment has expanded as well. For example, Tyson’s Open Prairie line of natural pork features no antibiotics ever and no added growth hormones or growth promotants, and is made from hogs on a 100% vegetarian diet; according to research cited by Tyson, 72% of meat shoppers now look for meat they consider “better for me or better for my family,” up from 66% in 2019.

Pork Report
Tyson Fresh Meats has noted growing interest in its Open Prairie natural pork spareribs.

What’s Hot in Processed and Specialty Pork

Beyond fresh pork, processed and specialty pork products are providing another kind of lift to the overall pork category. As charcuterie remains a top trend, brands like Columbus Fresh Meats from Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods continue to widen their portfolios with more pork-based processed meats. For its part, family-owned True Story Foods, based in Fairfield, Calif., recently rolled out dry-aged sliced Heritage Breed Prosciutto, available at Sprouts Farmers Market locations. 

Bacon, that perennial favorite, keeps on sizzling, with $6.4 billion in sales — a 1.9% lift over 2021 and a 28.1% jump over pre-pandemic 2019, by IRI’s findings. Within bacon, recent new products include lower-sugar or no-sugar varieties like Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods’ sugar-free uncured applewood-smoked bacon. Coleman also teamed up with the Hingham, Mass.-based Wahlburgers brand to offer all-natural, crate-free Wahlburgers Hickory Smoked Uncured Bacon. 

Pork is a common ingredient in meat snacks, too. The ongoing popularity of high-protein and keto diets has buoyed pork rinds from brands like Slim Jim and 4505 Meats, which recently came out with Chile Limon Chicharrones that scored a best new product award at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, in Chicago. Another snack form comes from Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms, which just launched BBQ Seasoned Pulled Pork Bites, ideal for air fryers. 

Finally as with other protein sectors, the traditional pork category is contending with plant-based alternatives that have made their way into retail meat cases. For instance, Redwood City, Calif.-based Impossible Foods recently introduced Impossible Pork, a ground product that packs 18 grams of protein, and Impossible Sausage Links in bratwurst, Italian and spicy flavors. 

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