Choice is good. Unfortunately, in present circumstances, there are fewer choices than normal for the people who are our customers. These tough economic times limit their ability to pay extra for unusual foods, whatever their wishes might be.
The clues are everywhere around us, not least in the sales figures for premium products that have a label such as organic or biological. Standard commodity foodstuffs have continued to sell as before, whereas the nearest equivalents that are slightly higher in price due to special claims are struggling to find purchasers.
It underlines the comment made to me by someone with long experience of food retailing. "In a recession, price rules everything. No retailer can afford to be out of step with the mood of his customers and in the current situation of hardship this means keeping the focus firmly on price above all other considerations," he said.
But he also acknowledged that the consumers of the Western world, and in many parts of Asia, have retained some of their previous commitments in pork purchasing despite the recessionary pressures. While they may not be prepared to spend more because meat is sold as organic, they have often shown themselves influenced by their previous ideas over animal welfare in the sense that they still prefer the product with a welfare-sounding label.
Even more, there remains an undeniable determination to put health and safety at the forefront of their purchasing decisions. The two categories sound the same but are, in fact, quite different.
The safety aspect is the clearer of the two, so let us deal with it first. When a shopper buys pork or any other meat, the product chosen will be the one most identified as not likely to make anyone sick. This could be as simple as having packaging which shows a recognised emblem of quality assurance or it might relate more to product appearance and sell-by date.
Health is a different matter. Now we are not talking about people becoming ill so much as about eating something that may make them more healthy.
Enriched products come in this category, although on both sides of the Atlantic there is currently a debate among regulators over the labelling that they will allow. Claims of enrichment may be permitted in the future only if the supplier is able to prove that the amount of extra vitamin or whatever in his product exceeded a normal level for food of that type by at least a threshold percentage. It would be a hard requirement because of the variability with which additions to the feed of animals or birds appear later as heightened amounts in meat, milk or eggs.
Any mark that could convey both health and safety would have to be a winner in the present environment. It would certainly take precedence even over welfare in its appeal to today's consumer.
Influences from the retail level
For a long time now I have criticised supermarkets for misleading producers, because of the story on animal welfare. My complaint started after some retailers directly encouraged the suppliers of their pork to embrace production systems that had a more welfare-friendly image.
The message at the time had been that money invested in changing to the method of production preferred by the supermarket would be rewarded by more continuity of purchases and a price premium to cover the extra cost. Then the same retailers went off to buy pork from other places with less stringent welfare requirements, because the meat was cheaper, and left their former producers with all of the cost and less of a market.
The UK recently saw the ridiculous situation of a vegetarian organisation winning a decision from the national authority on standards in advertisements, that pork could not be promoted as being higher-welfare because it originated from units which farrowed their sows in crates. I can guarantee you that if British herds did switch to non-confinement farrowing systems they would immediately be told by the retail chains that their pig meat was too expensive to be competitive with pork imported from countries where the farrowing crate remained in use.
Nevertheless, it can be hard to agree always with the long-heard claim that the farms have the cost and the shops have the profit. Our online news service reported something similar recently, in the form of an objection raised by a consumer organisation in France. After conducting a study of meat prices at French supermarkets between 1990 and 2008, according to a Reuters report, it had concluded that the retailers charged their customers too much for pork and chicken,
Over the past two years, the increased price of meat on these supermarket shelves correlated closely to the extra money received by producers, the study by UFC-Que Choisir agreed. But the longer-term view since 1990 had seen both red meat and poultry meat become more expensive at retail level — sometimes by 50% — despite generally declining producer prices.
UFC-Que Choisir calculated that French pig producers in 2008 were paid 30% less per kilogram of pork than in 1990, yet the retail price had risen by up to 26%. Poultry prices increased 40% at the retail end over the same period, against a 7% rise in producer prices. For beef, the contrast was between a 50% increase in the price to the consumer and a 15% reduction in the price to the producer of the cattle.