When it comes to the culprits responsible for pork's collapse in 2009, lagging exports, oversupply and the H1N1 flu garner most of the attention and headlines.

But a National Pork Board official says some of the blame placed on the novel influenza virus' impact on pork prices is unwarranted.

“Fresh pork sales actually increased following the April H1N1 crisis,” reports Ceci Snyder, vice president of Domestic Marketing for the Pork Board. The data reporting ran from March 1, 2009 through June 14, 2009 (Figure 1).

Snyder agrees there were some bumps along the way that caused pork sales to dip:

  • The last week in April, when the first case of the novel flu was reported in Mexico;

  • The third week in April, when the first case of the H1N1 flu was reported in the United States;

  • The first week in May, when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it was raising the flu alert from level 4 to 5; and

  • The second week in June, when WHO announced it was raising the flu alert from 5 to 6 (pandemic status).

Even with the H1N1 flu fresh in the news, fresh pork sales during Easter of this year surpassed last year's totals by 19.3%, Snyder says. Dinner sausage sales climbed 18.8% over last year and ham receipts rose by 11.7% for the same period.

Memorial Day, typically a strong event for fresh pork sales, exceeded last year's performance by 6.3%, as also shown in Figure 1.

Overall for the 24-week period of 2009, ending June 14, fresh pork sales increased 5.7% in dollar value and 7.5% in pounds sold over the same period a year ago, Snyder says.

The Pork Board official stopped short, however, of saying that pork demand is on the rise.

“I know we are moving a lot of volume through retail, but our indexes do not take into account supermarket feature pricing, and the demand index certainly does not equate to producer profitability. We do know that retail pork prices, in general, are way down, and we want retail prices to be healthy so that the economic benefit trickles back to producers,” she suggests.

But she stresses there is no doubt that consumption of pork products is good and that the H1N1 crisis “really didn't affect consumption. It is a fallacy to say that H1N1 affected pork sales.”

But Snyder acknowledges that demand has not advanced enough to take into account the 7% increase in the U.S. pork supply this year.

Positive Messages Resonate

FreshLook grocery syndicated data shows that the hard work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, other federal agencies, the National Pork Producers Council and the Pork Board did make a difference in the opinions of pork consumers, Snyder says.

FreshLook data represents about 65% of the market share of traditional grocers; no supercenters, club/warehouse stores or natural/organic food stores are included.

In the polling of pork consumers by the National Pork Board, the percent who said pork was safe ranged from 88% up to 94% on the last night of polling (June 3), Snyder states. “Even at its lowest point that first night of polling, April 28, 81% of pork consumers said pork was safe to eat. Right now, consumers don't connect H1N1 and pork.”

Pigs can get sick with the H1N1 flu virus, but because it is a respiratory disease and not a food-borne issue, pork is safe to eat, according to the National Pork Board.

Fall Promotions

The National Pork Board reallocated some funds internally in order to conduct some fall promotions to continue the positive message about pork, especially in light of heightened concerns about an uptick in cases of the H1N1 virus this fall, Snyder says.

“We are partnering with the 2,400 Kroger grocery stores nationwide for our fall promotions, keying on the theme, ‘Pick Up Pork — The All-American Value,’” she says. The solely radio advertising program supports 14 major markets across the United States.

“We are definitely playing on that feeling of pride and producing an affordable product that America loves. These products showcase the believable image of producers to drive volume of product from our family to yours,” Snyder says.

The advertising campaign runs from October through November.

A public relations campaign with producer spokespeople and social media outreach on the Pork Board's consumer Web site will also run during the promotional effort.

Creative materials for the fall media blitz will be available to state pork producer associations, Snyder says.