When it comes to meat, poultry and seafood, processors are faced with numerous challenges that begin with flavor and trend fulfillment -- consumers want food that's tasty and exciting -- and end with safe-food practices and packaging.
Commodity meat, poultry and seafood have seen drastic changes in production methods over the past few decades. Increasing demand for plentiful and inexpensive products has forced much of the production away from the family ranch or farm and toward large factory-like facilities with all the problems associated with size and speed. Yet the rush for speed, volume and competitive pricing created some high-profile food safety lapses, which ushered in major corrective paradigm shifts that forever changed the face of animal protein processing.
Today a growing number of consumers are weighing cost against food sources that promise free-range, grass-fed and antibiotic-free environments and product. All of that affects consumer perception of the end product, giving quality and value a more complex meaning and putting safety paramount — where it should be.
Even in stressed economic times, consumers are still focusing on taste and nutrition, according to Issac Wiesenfeld, president of Wise Organic Pastures, Brooklyn, N.Y., a family business devoted to supplying double-certified Kosher and organic poultry and meats.
Consumer interest in Kosher meats is steadily growing due in no small part to the fact that Kosher laws are stricter than USDA standards with regard to the health of animals that can be eaten. The laws strictly dictate how the animals are fed, killed and processed. "I would say in the protein category the demand for Kosher foods is growing at 5 to 7 percent annually," says Wiesenfeld.
Wiesenfeld also sees more growth in the "natural" product category, although "customers are waiting to see USDA legislation on defining the ‘natural' claim," he says. At the forefront of this natural movement is the Niman Ranch, Alameda, Calif.
From an 11-acre ranch in a small coastal town north of San Francisco, the Niman Ranch has grown to include more than 650 independent American farmers and ranchers united by traditional humane husbandry methods. Whether raising hogs, beef or lamb, these traditional farmers share Niman Ranch's dedication to the strictest animal husbandry practices and the belief that all-natural, humane and sustainable methods consistently produce the highest quality, best tasting meats.
"We go beyond the USDA definition of natural — minimally processed, no artificial ingredients — because we believe natural should also mean the animals have been raised humanely, without antibiotics or added hormones and fed an all-natural vegetarian diet," says Jeff Tripician, Niman's chief marketing officer. "At Niman Ranch, ‘naturally raised' isn't a trend. It's been our business and our passion for more than 30 years. Our mission has remained steadfast: to raise livestock traditionally, humanely and sustainably."
Natural also is part of the "quality equation" at Sanderson Farms. So are taste, nutrition, price, safety, convenience, according to Hilary Burroughs, manager of marketing services for the Laurel, Miss., producer of all-natural chickens. At Sanderson the term "all-natural" excludes injection of chickens with salt water, a process called "plumping," even though the FDA allows "enhanced" chickens to be labeled "100 percent natural."
So must all meat and poultry be produced in free-range, grass-fed, antibiotic-free environments? "When consumers are asked about [those kinds of] offerings, they are very interested. However, the cost of these products eliminates many consumers from purchasing it," says Burroughs. "It's challenging in that this type of farming will decrease the amount of protein processed, because you cannot treat ailing animals with antibiotics. And free-range animals are more susceptible to bacterial infections and predators.
"Our food supply would decrease tremendously if all farming practices were to be of this format," adds Burroughs. "There is a market for these items and a consumer willing to pay for them, however the growth rate seems to be miniscule. Consumers are still confused as to what these labels actually mean in terms of how the animal was raised, what they were or were not fed and how it affects the consumers' health, if at all."