by Lisa M. Keefe, editor in chief
The profit is in the adjectives, or so the saying goes, and in fact 80% of consumers are interested in some sort of “better-for” claims, whether that’s better for the consumers, the animals, the farmers or the planet.
This, according to the 2019 Power of Meat report, conducted by 210 Analytics LLC for the North American Meat Institute and the Food Marketing Institute, sponsored by Sealed Air Food Care.
One claim that has proved elusive, particularly in the red meat categories, has been traceability across the supply chain — the “farm gate to dinner plate” promise that consumers can buy a steak or chop and find out where the animal was raised and harvested. Now, Tyson Fresh Meats is using a program of DNA tracking for its Open Prairie premium brand of beef and — beginning in October 2019 — pork, that closes that loop, for a price.
The investment in information technology is one that the company believes will pay off in the domestic market, with an application to export markets somewhere down the road.
“It’s hard in the U.S. because there is no mandated animal traceability, such as with Canada having a fully traceable system mandated by law. [A DNA tracking process] helps us have full life cycle traceability back to the beginning, whether it’s beef or pork,” says Jim Sellers, director of business development for Tyson’s Open Prairie Natural Pork program. “As consumers continue to want to know more about where their products come from, I believe it’s something that we’re going to need nationally across the system to be able to have a traceable product.”
Stumbling blocks to full supply chain traceability have been technology and culture, and the business of disassembly that is meat processing: Hogs and cattle become a dizzying array of end products heading in different directions, with cuts from different animals being endlessly commingled. Traceability is somewhat easier to provide with poultry, or at least for the 10% of broilers and 40% of turkeys that are sold in the U.S. as whole birds. Typically, only the few consumers who buy whole hogs or cattle direct from the producer can know their origin. But the traceability technologies most likely in use in red meat sectors — ear tags, RFID tags, microchips and the like — can’t follow the process past the knock box, as carcasses are rapidly processed into smaller pieces. Even blockchain systems can’t follow the many different directions that meat products are destined to travel post-harvest.
The animal’s DNA, however, is “nature’s barcode,” says Greg Peters, director of technical accounts at IdentiGEN, the company that provides Tyson with its traceback system. It will identify the end products associated with that animal, wherever and in whatever form they may be.
Tracking the DNA also builds bridges over the many divides in the red meat supply chains that make traceability difficult. Particularly in beef, the livestock travel through several owners and locations before harvest, and many operators on the live side are protective of their business data. A 2018 survey conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association showed that 20% of cow-calf producers remain opposed to an industry traceability program, even if half of those opposed indicated they were “resigned to the inevitable.”
“If the source verification is that critical, it has to be done in a way that has the greatest opportunity of closing the breaks in the chain and that’s really DNA,” says market analyst John Nalivka, founder of Sterling Marketing in Vale, Ore.
Tyson Fresh Meats’ DNA traceback technology is in limited deployment, used only for its super premium Open Prairie brand which already bristles with claims: no antibiotics ever, no added hormones or growth promotants, no animal byproducts in the feed (save for milk), transparency into the production and processing system. It was introduced on the beef line in March 2019, and on the pork production line in Waterloo, Iowa, in October.
Open Prairie represents a small percentage of the company’s red meat production — less than 10% — or about 10,000 head of hogs in a week, Sellers says. Open Prairie producers are a small fraternity and the livestock has always been traceable from the farm to the processing plant since the brand was introduced, which in hogs was in 2016. Now, on the two days a week that Open Prairie hogs are processed at the Waterloo plant, two additional line workers stand at a point where the split carcasses move by on the chain and use a small plastic scoop, which itself is barcoded, to remove a sample of tissue from a designated spot. The samples are sealed and dropped into a box that will eventually be delivered for verification testing, to ensure that the identification that came with the animal to the processing facility has been properly carried through to the cuts going out the door. Between 25% and 100% of the DNA samples are tested for verification on any given processing day.
Even those samples that aren’t used for verification are kept in storage for two years. They could be useful in tracking down and tracing back the spread of animal diseases, for example.
Tyson is confident that the existing Open Prairie consumer is an ideal audience to appeal to with this new DNA technology. They have, after all, already self-identified as a segment that is far hungrier for information about their food than the average meat shopper. They are online doing the research, they shop the stores, such as Whole Foods, that provides that information as a point of differentiation, and they dine at restaurants that advertise better-for-you options in meat.
And, they have already demonstrated a willingness to pay for that assurance, which could be key to the technology’s future: One of the barriers to the widespread adoption of traceability programs has been their cost, and the question of who will bear it. For the Open Prairie program, producers already are making the investments necessary to supply the program; in an oversimplified calculation, then, the cost of the DNA program would be passed on to the consumer, to the extent possible.
Tyson executives decline to specify the margin difference to the company between its Open Prairie line and its conventional offerings; it varies by the grade and by the cut.
But, “The upscale shopper, the informed shopper is definitely the consumer that’s even interested in the product,” Sellers says.
And that consumer segment is growing.
“This is something — the interest in animal welfare, traceability, transparency — that we’ve been measuring for quite some time. We saw this become more prevalent among millennials, and based on the Gen Z consumers that we are surveying, we don’t expect to wane,” says Danette Amstein, principal with Midan Marketing and a blogger for Meatingplace.com. Midan consults with Tyson and also with IdentiGEN on marketing matters.
The drivers behind the consumer behavior don’t appear to be as much income-related as age-related, with younger consumers and younger parents asking the questions most often, Amstein says. Whether the consumer demand exists for all the information potentially made available by a DNA traceback program isn’t clear, she says: “In a recent study that we did, 82% said they want to know where their pork comes from. But when we really dive down, there are some differences as to whether they want to [trace it back] to the animal or to just the farm.”
THE ONLINE FACTOR
Another area where Tyson sees a future payoff is in the growing online market for fresh goods. Complete supply chain traceability would be expected to go a long way toward helping more consumers feel comfortable buying a cut of meat that they don’t see until it arrives on the doorstep. “I think that for consumers that are very much into either traceability or transparency, knowing that a brand is doing that means they can trust that brand going forward. It’s becoming more important that the story be told in such a way that they can check that box and stop worrying about it.
“They will come back to that brand because there’s a level of trust,” Amstein says.
The Power of Meat study determined that less than 1% of consumers consider online ordering to be their primary means of shopping for groceries. But, four in 10 consumers have ordered groceries online, whether that was click-and-collect, for home delivery, via online-only retailers or online ordering with a brick-and-mortar store.
The trend skews strongly younger, with only about one-quarter of boomers saying they had ever shopped for groceries online, but just over half of younger millennials.
Midan Marketing’s research indicates that about 20% of all consumers nationwide are buying some kind of fresh meat online, Amstein says. Typically those purchases are from a local grocery store that they also shop in, but online programs are growing in popularity.
The DNA traceback program at Tyson is unique in the industry, and even at Tyson is in its infancy. And the Open Prairie brand is, so far, developed strictly with the domestic market in mind. But traceability is growing in importance in international trade, as well, with several countries — notably in Asia — requiring some closed-loop traceback system be in place before they will grant access to their markets. That could be a payoff for Tyson, or any other processor who adopts the DNA system, that far outstrips demand at home.
“I think the DNA system would be the ultimate,” Nalivka says. “That would be the gold standard. I don’t know of anything that would surpass that in terms of reliability.”
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