Production agriculture is facing increasing pressure from consumers about pork — not so much about whether the products are lean or not, but for the farming practices used to produce that product, says Purdue University agricultural economist Nicole Olynk Widmar.
“When consumers talk, they mention things like the welfare associated with the production of bacon or the welfare associated with making pork chops. It’s the new consumer reality,” she says. Producers try to make consumers accountable as to why they think pigs should be treated a certain way.
But the truth is, consumers’ views don’t have to be science-based; often they are based on beliefs, values, or emotions, adds Melissa McKendree, a former master’s student at Purdue now pursuing her Ph.D. at Kansas State University.
“We are trying to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, we are all consumers who might buy something simply because we like it,” Widmar explains.
Widmar and McKendree collaborated on a ham and lunch meat survey of consumers to gain a better understanding of purchasing decisions based on consumer perceptions, beliefs and behaviors.
Specifically, 798 U.S. consumers were surveyed; the sample was representative across age, geographic location, household income and education, McKendree says.
“We wanted to see if consumers’ views varied across products. Do they view smoked ham and ham lunch meat differently, for example, because one is perceived as being more processed, or due to different eating occasions?” McKendree asks.
For pork producers, the question becomes whether consumers are equally concerned about the welfare of pigs when purchasing different pork products. There are questions regarding how consumers view products that are more closely associated with the animal from which they are raised, Widmar observes. That line of thinking led the chicken industry to move away from selling whole chickens and toward products that look less like the whole animal.
Average age of respondents was 47; 48% of respondents were male and an average household income of $49,000 was reported. Thirty-three percent had at least a bachelor’s degree, and 4% and 2% were self-reported vegetarian and vegan, respectively.
To poll their familiarity with farms and livestock production, participants were asked when they last visited a farm with animals raised for meat, egg or milk consumption. The responses were:
∙ Thirty-one percent had never visited a farm.
∙ Thirty-one percent said it had been 10 or more years since they visited a farm.
∙ Seven percent had not visited a farm in 6-10 years.
∙ Seventeen percent said it had been more than five years, and 14% said within the last year.
Some 88% of participants reported purchasing lunch meat, with 42% of consumers studied indicating they purchased lunch meat at least once a week. These households which purchased lunch meat were larger and had higher weekly food expenditure, McKendree says.
For lunch meat varieties, more people overall purchased ham than other meat choices, Widmar says.
For purchases of ham products, half a ham was the most commonly purchased, followed by ham steak or ham cubes. A total of 83.5% of the households surveyed purchased some form of ham, McKendree says. Close to half (46%) purchased ham at least once a month.
Respondents purchasing ham nearly once a month dispelled the notion that ham is mainly consumed as a holiday tradition, McKendree notes.
Animal Welfare Concerns
Fourteen percent of survey participants said they decreased pork consumption in the past three years due to animal welfare concerns. Those respondents reducing consumption reported a 56% decline in pork consumption, on average, Widmar says.
Granted, that decline is larger than for some of the other products that Purdue has investigated. But Widmar cautions it’s not known if these consumers were large or small pork consumers when they made the adjustment to their diet.
When it came to animal welfare issues, the highest concern was raised for animal slaughter and processing, followed by on-farm production and then animal transportation, McKendree points out.
Willingness to Pay
Another key piece of this study was a hypothetical choice experiment to estimate participants’ willingness to pay (WTP) for verified production process attributes in smoked ham and ham lunch meat. The attributes investigated included pasture access, non-use of antibiotics and non-use of individual crates/stalls, which could be verified by the USDA Process Verified Program (PVP), a retailer or the pork industry. Positive average WTP was found for all attribute-verifier combinations, except for pork industry certified non–use of individual crate/stalls for smoked ham.
Significant WTP values ranged on average from $1.26/lb. for non-use of individual crates/stalls verified by the pork industry in ham lunch meat, to $4.34/lb. for pasture access verified by the USDA PVP in smoked ham.
For all attributes, participants were willing to pay the most when the attribute was verified by the USDA PVP. No significant differences, once adjustments for base prices were made, existed between consumers’ WTP for these attributes in smoked ham vs. ham lunch meat.
Looking at pork products purchased, more consumers polled were concerned about food safety than animal welfare. The highest concern for animal welfare in pork products was associated with bacon. “But even though they were concerned about it, they still purchased it,” McKendree says.
It’s true for many food staples. Concern is growing for how meat, milk and eggs are produced, but many consumers haven’t drastically reduced purchases as a result.
Of those responding, 392 expressed concerns for the welfare of pigs associated with the production of bacon, 349 for hot dogs and 373 for pork sausage.
“There are different levels of concern for welfare of the pig depending on which product you are buying,” Widmar observes.
Perhaps surprisingly, the majority of consumers indicated they preferred to prepare fresh, raw pork products rather than frozen, processed products where they didn’t have to touch the meat.
By an 84% response, consumers surveyed said they consider a pig/hog a livestock animal, rather than a pet (or neither). And 87% said they were not opposed to eating a pig. And just 6% said they were opposed to other people eating a pig, Widmar relates.
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