Despite slumping pork exports, high supplies of product in 2013 and heavy weights of hogs headed to slaughter, pork demand seems to be gaining ground against its protein competitors, according to Ceci Snyder, vice president of domestic marketing for the National Pork Board.

“All of our sales are doing quite well,” she says, noting that pork currently retains a price advantage over beef, which is attracting more consumers in the medium to heavy user categories. The result is that real per capita expenditures/disappearance are on the rise.

“Our last data through October shows that real per capita expenditures for pork are actually up 5% year to date. This data correlates pretty nicely with the pork demand work that Ron Plain [University of Missouri agricultural economist] does, because it uses the same inputs — volume and price — without the elasticity added in,” Snyder points out. Year over year, pork expenditures in October were up 7.7%.

“Despite exports being down, pork demand has held its own,” she says.

For 2013, three facts highlight pork’s success in the protein market:

■ Pork in total represents 21% of all foodservice protein volume.

■ Fresh pork was the fastest-growing protein between 2011 and 2013.

■ Turkey and processed pork were the next fastest-growing sectors.

Marketing Campaign

“Pork. Be inspired,” the marketing campaign funded by the pork checkoff, is taking a more targeted approach, going after medium to heavy product users. “These are the people who love pork, who eat it pretty frequently, but not as frequently as they do chicken and beef. So we are trying to convert some of these people to more frequent pork eating,” Snyder says. And the data say it seems to be paying off.

Part of the payoff for pork is its versatility, which appeals to the growing numbers of ethnic and racial groups in America. In fact, the National Pork Board has hired a multicultural marketing director who hails from Puerto Rico.

One recent campaign featured the versatility of pulled pork, which can be used as an ingredient in a lot of recipes — including salads and slow-cooker dishes — an attraction for its ethnic applications, she says.

Snyder says the new staff member will be spearheading the new multicultural pork marketing effort being launched in 2014. “Our brand, ‘Pork. Be inspired,’ needs to appeal across the spectrum of Caucasian, Asian, African-American and Hispanic-Americans so we have one cohesive message.”

“What we have found since the ‘Pork. Be inspired’ campaign started in 2011 is that our target has grown, and by that I mean what we are finding is that people are more open to pork,” Snyder says. When the effort started, 28% of all households fit into the pork target, and now that figure is 43%. To fit into the pork target, consumers must be competent in cooking at least two cuts of pork, and be positive about pork and their outlook on life.

“We measure their outlook because when we define inspiration, it is really targeted at a person who sees their glass in life as half full, and they look at life as full of possibilities and opportunities,” she observes.

That group of medium to heavy pork users “loves to cook, enjoys pork, is not held back by nutrition or food safety, is ethnically diverse and represents a broad range of people,” Snyder says.

The latest consumer tracking study conducted by the National Pork Board also found that retailers and restaurants want to target pork eaters. “We have found that 84% of all pork eaten at home and 80% of pork eaten away from home is consumed by our pork target. Specifically, targeting these confident cooks who find pork versatile and creative is key to reaching pork eaters,” she says.

Telling the 145 degree F story

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered the recommended cooking temperature for beef, pork, veal and lamb to 145 degrees F, with a three-minute resting time afterward.

“We made that announcement, but what we have found is that is a big change for most people — and many people cook meat beyond 160 degrees F, the previous cooking recommendation,” Snyder says.

So this past year, the National Pork Board changed its strategy somewhat to talk about a range of cooking temperatures. “Now we communicate a range of cooking temperatures from 145 to 160 degrees F, because switching to 145 degrees F was almost too hard of a goal for consumers,” she explains.

Every six months, the National Pork Board inquires of consumers how they cook their pork, and honestly, there has not been much of a shift downward toward 145 degrees F, Snyder admits.

“I think the range of cooking recommendations is necessary, because 145 degrees F is a bit intimidating. Food-safety-wise, it is definitely acceptable, and people prefer 145 degrees F when they taste pork; but when they see it, some pork eaters think it looks too pink,” she says.

Increasing acceptance of pork at retail and foodservice venues has driven up pork demand. Snyder says she’s unsure if the popular protein will meet the pork checkoff’s goal of 10% growth in five years (by the end of 2014). But she remains confident that real per capita consumer expenditures for pork will remain in “quite positive territory.”

To retain and build on its base of loyal consumers, the pork checkoff is focused on a long-term strategy to influence menu decisions through social media, public relations and food editor groups, and target dietitians and supermarkets to promote pork and deal with misconceptions, Snyder concludes.