Americans grow their niche markets

Americans grow their niche markets White-linen restaurants in the USA are the driving force behind a rising demand for pork from some novel added-value projects Keith Thornton is an international production consultant and systems auditor, based in the USA. In a country where 100 million pigs are marketed f

Outdoor production on the Iowa farm of Paul Willis, manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company in the USA. (Photo courtesy Niman Ranch)
Outdoor production on the Iowa farm of Paul Willis, manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company in the USA. (Photo courtesy Niman Ranch)

In a country where 100 million pigs are marketed for meat every year and only about 20 big players dominate the business, the battle to win a premium price or even survival by standing out from the crowd has taken on a new urgency. The producers making the most obvious moves currently are those who aim to serve a niche market by supplying a specific product in reliable deliveries.

Recent steady growth of niche markets for pork has been a feature of the US meat industry. Over the last 10 years their retail volumes are reported to have grown by at least 20%, even if their share of all pork sales remains extremely small.

With their development has come a need to define terms more precisely. One definition offered by the National Pork Board suggests that niche marketing means "Supplying unique pork and pork products in a way that specific customer segments prefer or value". In more practical terms, today's niche markets in the USA are associated mainly with so-called natural or organic products. Among their characteristics they are likely to say the meat has been produced without the use of antibiotics (or hormones) in the pigs' feed, without feeding animal by-products, with access to pasture or outdoor yards and bedding materials, with humane and friendly treatment and with special care for the environment.

Last year the pork board co-ordinated a Niche Pork Study to evaluate the importance of such attributes among customers. The survey (by R. Parker & Associates Inc/Ashcroft Research with funding from NPB and the Kellogg Foundation) indicated that consumers were willing to pay a premium for niche pork and that 40% of them were more likely to buy meat from locally grown animals. It went on to judge that meat from pasture-raised pigs in a production system excluding both antibiotic growth promotants and animal by-products could obtain up to a 25% share of the total national fresh-pork market.

At about the same time an edition of US magazine Food Technology was claiming one of the Top Ten global food trends to involve "Foods that are closer to the farm referred to by such terms as farmstead or homestead, organic and natural, sustainable grown, free range and produced with respect for land, animals and workers continue to capture food markets worldwide". Of course, this then requires a definition of the term organic. On the US scene, organic can be taken broadly as referring to meat from certified natural production. Certification is available from the US department of agriculture, although that is not mandatory. Others including the American Berkshire Association add their own special regulations for qualifying schemes. Auditing and verification by independent agencies apply to a wide range of brands and labels.

A distinct chain from producer to consumer exists for niche pork as for commodity pork in the United States. This will involve primary producers, marketing groups, processors, wholesaler and retail outlets, restaurants, Farmers' Markets and online shopping. The essential difference regarding the niche-market meat is that it will figure almost exclusively in fresh-meat channels and relies at least as heavily on the caterers and direct sales as on the retailers.

Consumption outside the home is big business in the USA. It can be divided most simply into 3 main categories, starting with the fast-food outlets of which McDonalds, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are the most obvious examples (although do not ignore the rapid rise of the ethnic-style restaurants, particularly those with a Mexican flavour). Each of these is still predominantly a user of commodity meat products. Recent times, however, have seen them becoming much more concerned about the level of animal welfare practised by their product sources. They have set up welfare advisory committees, codes of practice and audits that now exert a strong influence on production systems.

The second category of outside consumption is being called Fast Casual. Definitely growing and evolving, its examples include the Chipotle chain of restaurants (see panel). One of the major points linking the category's various members is that they source meat from natural/organic producers.

But the primary focus of the American niche marketers must be on the third category, comprising the upmarket eating places that are known as â€˜white linen' or â€˜white table' restaurants to acknowledge the tablecloths they use. These full-service establishments can be found on the East Coast and the West Coast of the country, also in many of the major Midwestern cities such as Minneapolis in Minnesota, Kansas City in Missouri, Omaha in Nebraska and indeed in the host city of the World Pork Expo show, Des Moines in Iowa.

Step inside any of them and you can expect to be offered 2-3 main dishes (entrees) featuring niche pork. The name or brand of the producer may well be mentioned. One of the most famous brands nationally is that of outdoor producer Niman Ranch. Today there is also a Berkshire-pork venture called Berkridge, involving a new marketing group in north-west Iowa started as a partnership between meat processor SiouxPreme Packing Company and production co-ordinator Pork Pro. It operates an integrated system from producer to customer and it concentrates exclusively on one breed, the Berkshire, for the attributes of meat colour, marbling and taste.

In this respect it has marked something of a revival for the Berkshire. Outside its English homeland and continuing popularity as â€˜Kurobuta' or black hog in Japan, the breed had slipped back to minority status after its heyday in the USA during the 1940's and 1950's. But new American interest was sparked when the National Pork Producers Council sponsored a genetic evaluation programme in 1995 and reported that the Berkshire pigs came out top in 6 out of 7 categories for meat quality traits.

This presented a clear opportunity for SiouxPreme, a company that has been exporting Berkshire pork to Japan for many years. Its meat plant in central Iowa currently processes 35 000-40 000 Berkshire pigs annually. While this is less than 10% of the company's total sales, a rising demand from the domestic white-linen restaurants looks set to grow the niche side of the business rapidly.

The pigs it processes are strictly controlled by a verification scheme covering about 20 independent family farms. These producers must agree to comply on feed and health programmes as well as on genetics. They accept an extra production cost which some people estimate to be 25-30% extra compared with producing conventional pork because of the Berkshire breed's lower litter size and slower growth rates. In return, though, the highly differentiated pork can fetch a premium of up to 4 times the price of commodity pigmeat.

Others in the USA are also emphasising Berkshire pork. Prairie Pride in Minnesota, for example, is a fifth-generation family farm that differs by growing Berkshire pigs outdoors and using deep-bedded shelters as well as by excluding the antibiotics and the animal by-products. Even more exceptional is the way in which this meat is marketed.

Here is a niche marketer that supplies directly to local shops and to the big stores in Minneapolis-St Paul and Mankato. What is more, it has linked to the boom in online shopping. Potential customers can view a wide range of Prairie Pride pork products on their computer screen and have their choice delivered promptly to their door. Seeking still more channels, the farm has a heavy schedule of attending Farmers' Markets in Midwestern townships. Additionally it has opened up a barbeque catering service for a wide surrounding area.

Anyone looking for more niche-pork examples need look no further than Heritage Foods USA. Its declared mission is to promote genetic diversity, small family farms and a fully traceable food supply. Essentially it is a trader of all meats, the product range including not only pork but also beef, poultry, lamb and even bison. Everything is sourced from family farms, extending from the Midwest out to Arizona, California and Vermont.

The pig breeds it features again include the Berkshire, although now joined by other traditional names such as Gloucester Old Spot, Large Black, Tamworth and Red Wattle (a breed developed in the forests of Texas that had been considered at grave risk of extinction despite being noted for dark, tender pork and juicy, lean hams). Heritage too has seen the chance to sell online. It also markets the pork to wholesalers and retailers in addition to having a widespread mail-order business.

However, no rapid review of US niche marketing would be complete without a reminder about the success story that is Niman Ranch. Its branded products are featured in many white-linen restaurant menus across the country. Established over 20 years ago in the San Francisco Bay area of California, it quickly established a reputation for gourmet-quality meats. But a key point in development occurred in 1994 when founder Bill Niman met pig producer Paul Willis from Iowa and began to buy all the pork from the Willis farm. Neighbouring farmers became involved as demand increased. Today, Niman Ranch has over 300 certified farmers throughout the Midwest and North Carolina.

They must sign and follow a strict code of standards set by the Animal Welfare Institute, a charity established in 1951 which establishes husbandry standards for pigs. Their animals must have access to pasture or outside pens with bedding. The use of antibiotics, hormones or drugs is prohibited, as well as any usage of meat by-products.

Before certification, a potential producer must submit for evaluation and testing 2 fresh centre-cut pork chops which are the equivalent of about 38-39mm thick. Eating quality is evaluated by taking several samples from randomly selected sites each week. Qualifying pigs should be 109-127kg liveweight at slaughter. There is no specific requirement on choice of breeds. Niman Ranch prefers a well-marbled carcase with an attractive pink colour; flavour and juiciness are key factors in judging pork quality. Farmers are paid a premium for pigs purchased by Niman Ranch on a pricing grid developed by SiouxPreme Pork. PIGI

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