2013: The year of Niche Meats

“Niche” meats are products that are raised and sold with additional quality values to set it apart from conventional meat.  Examples include locally raised, sustainably raised, grass-fed, certified organic, hormone & antibiotic-free, humane handing certified, value-added, Kosher, and Halal.

Lauren Gwin and Shermain D. Hardesty call it “product identity”.   Although the jury is still out on a specific definition of “local,” “sustainable,” or even “humane,” consumers are increasingly demanding meat that has some kind of back story that they can connect with.  The general belief amongst consumers is that niche meats are fresher, healthier, better tasting, and the animals are better treated than conventional meat.  People aren’t just eating food anymore, they want to eat food that they can feel good about.

I know I’m not telling you anything new - but rather my point is that this is not a phase, a passing trend, or some hipster movement that will soon die off.  Meat is in the media right now, both good and bad - headlines about millions of pounds of recalled beef, right next to articles about tattooed meat cutters reviving the neighborhood butcher shop.  We are actually hearing more and more depressing food safety tragedies and in response, seeing documentary after documentary attempt to let the “industrial food conspiracy” cat out of the bag.  However, unlike how our political divide keeps growing, members of the conventional vs. natural meat parties can mostly agree on a few things:  food safety is important, health is important, taste is important, and animal welfare is important.

The organic movement, which has segued nicely into a focus on local and sustainable, has already shown us that the willingness to pay is much more flexible when it comes to food.  Consumers are willing to pay more, but they are demanding higher quality.  Local is not enough, just organic is not enough - there must be an ethical component, and above all it still needs to taste good!  Lean, tasteless pork is no longer something worth buying for most people.  You know what I’m talking about - my wife calls it the “meat log” - the nasty, oversized pork tenderloin in a vacuum-sealed package of salad dressing.  

As evidenced by the success of the Cochon 555 events, consumers are learning that heritage breeds, diet, and geography all contribute toward a unique product, just like wine (mmm, buttery!).  It’s not enough to watch the Food Network and make your favorite recipe - the quality of ingredients and their source are just as important.  “Foodie” is becoming synonymous with “food conscious”.

Large companies are catching on - I know you’ve seen Johnsonville’s labels that make their new line of “better-for-you” sausage look ‘artisan’, or Hormel’s Natural Choice recipes that also hold the slogan... “better for you” (how creative!).  “Health” in general is viewed much differently than it was 5 or 10 years ago.  We’ve gone from “low-fat” to “low-carb” to all sorts of diets promoting or restricting gluten, dairy, fermented, juicing, supplements, food combining, ancient diets, etc.  One thing all of these diets have in common?  Whatever they are recommending that you eat, they ask you to choose high quality. 

The restaurant market in particular is wide open for niche producers.  Restaurants are much more willing than retailers to work with the seasonality and variations of products from small local producers.  Read my other post, “how chefs and producers can work together,” to get an idea if you’re up for the challenge of growing and selling to chefs.  Look at the distribution and market potential near you.  If you can offer a great product, you can jump in and ride this wave!