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Jarrod Sutton - Precise Pork Insights: Data-driven analysis to reach consumers

August 18, 2020

Pork is the number one consumed protein globally, but fresh pork is the featured protein in less than 7% of entrée options when dining out in the US.

While food can be a very emotional experience that brings people together, food producers must use technology and rigid analysis to recognize trends in consumer eating habits. Jarrod Sutton, senior vice president of Strategy and Innovation at the National Pork Board, joins us to discuss his role in making the pork industry more responsive to consumers through data-driven insights.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Jarrod Sutton hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio.

Tom: Welcome to AgFuture, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of Plenty.

This is Tom Martin, and joining me is Jarrod Sutton, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at the National Pork Board. Greetings, Jarrod.

Jarrod: Hello, Tom. Thank you for having me.


Tell us briefly, if you would, for starters, about the mission of the Pork Board.

Well, the U.S. National Pork Board is the organization that represents all of America’s pork producers, and, quite candidly, our job is to strengthen the value of pork in the marketplace.

But really, we’re out to change the world. We’re out to feed the growing population, and we do that by, essentially, doing what’s right by pigs, doing what’s right by people and doing what’s right by the planet.


And do I understand correctly that you focus on what you just told us and that you don’t focus on lobbying or influencing policy?

Yeah. That’s correct. The National Pork Board is a quasi-governmental organization, so it falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture, and as such, we’re prohibited from doing any type of lobbying and advocacy influence in the political stage.

That being said, we do invest in research and in promotion, as well as consumer information. And that’s part of our mandate, which is part of the 1985 Farm Bill and is referred to as the Pork Act and Order.


Okay. I know that you’ve had marketing and social responsibility roles in the pork industry, and I’ve read that your current role is to help the industry be more future-focused, insight-driven and responsive to customers. And I’d like to look at each of those one at a time.

The first one (is) focusing on the future of the pork industry, especially in these times, when the food service industry has been knocked back on its heels by the coronavirus pandemic. What do you see in the future of the industry?

Well, clearly, it’s been a tremendous challenge for pork producers the last several months, given not only the closures in food service but the issues that have happened at the processing plant-level. You had people getting sick, and obviously, that’s a real problem. And those workers at the plant level were deemed essential workers by the current administration, but we knew they were essential workers long before the rest of the world did.

And so, when people start getting sick, clearly, that presents tremendous issues and challenges for the industry to overcome. We’re so glad that the government has been able to step in and provide the assistance and the proper equipment to help reduce the risk of those important workers from getting sick.

And so, that slowed down both the food service as well (and), at the processing level, created some challenges to farmers — just backing the system up, quite candidly. But when you look at things from a consumer lens, obviously, the buying habits shifted like we’ve not seen before, where people were rushing to their grocer or, certainly, purchasing online and stocking up on products, and the meat department benefitted from that.

What we saw and have seen, actually, through the first week of June is the most current data. The total meat department sales — and (the) meat department is leading all categories in the retail supermarket space. There is 24.2% (growth) versus in 2019, which is pretty significant. Pork itself is at 30%, so it has actually surpassed the growth of the entire category.

So, clearly, more people in the United States are eating more pork at home than at any given point in the history of the data and the record-keeping. (We’re) giving consumers information, which is, frankly, easier than ever before, right? Digitally, we can provide consumers videos and recipes. With more people with more pork on hand at home than ever before, we want to deliver those tools to people to ensure that they can have a successful eating experience so that (we can) sustain demand as food service starts to open back up.

And that’s really an important part of our focus as well, is to ensure that we’ve got all of our distributor partners, all of our restaurant partners, chefs included, really geared up and ready with the latest consumer-trend information to be as successful as they possibly can be with not only the products that they’re menuing — which, likely, will be a limited assortment — but also to menu in the right way to be most relevant with how consumer needs and demands have shifted.

And so, (we’re) really focused on sustaining that demand and experience and growth at the retail point of purchase and helping prepare our food service partners to be successful as they begin to reopen.


I mentioned that another of your roles is to help the industry become more insight-driven, and I would assume that that has to do with data and so forth, but can you elaborate? Tell us what it means to be insight-driven.

Yeah. Food is very emotional. It’s what brings people together. It’s what comforts us in times of uncertainties and unknowns. And, certainly, when we think about buying and selling and producing food, it can oftentimes be emotional as well. And it’s become, really, a central part of dialogue and debate and technology and innovation, obviously, in the geopolitical issues.

And so, I’ve learned a long time ago, Tom, that really everybody’s got ideas, everybody’s got opinions — that’s what makes the world go round — but data really is what it is. And if you can collect smart data and spend time strategically analyzing that data, you can quickly see, really, the trends that are taking shape.

So we just do trend-spotting, right? Then, you can anchor in on those things that are truly the certainties, the real moments of human truths. And given the digital technology and many people walking around with smart phone devices that, you know, really are demonstrating, by the hour, how we live — all that digital exhaust that we’re leaving a trail of is captured and reported back to organizations like the U.S. National Pork Board to effectively understand where to place that and how we can effectively drive innovation in our industry to ensure that pork remains relevant and continues to meet those changing consumer needs.

So, we talk about being data-heavy and assumption-light. The assumptions, I think — people say maybe they weren’t, and those are important points for dialogue, for sure. But I want to see a source and a reference. I want to be data-driven in the decisions that we’re making on behalf of a big pig industry to feed the world.


So, Jarrod, it sounds like that connects to the third leg of the stool, which is to help the industry become more responsive to customers. Has there been a need for improvement in that area?

Absolutely. I think the biggest challenge for our industry is truly understanding the implications for pork that these changing consumer needs present. And so, that’s why we set out on this journey, back in 2017, to conduct a comprehensive demand landscape throughout the entire United States to really get to know the different segments of consumers from coast to coast and how their lives had changed, how food plays a role in those lives and, you know, the expectations for the protein, specifically, that they are determining whether or not to purchase.

And that helped us. It’s kind of like the Stockdale paradox. You know, we’ve got a great product and we’re very optimistic and confident that, clearly, we’ll continue to be relevant with consumers. We had to face the brutal facts that there’s an awful lot of consumers in this country that just aren’t as comfortable, they’re not very confident in the kitchen, and they told us that (in) pretty massive quantitative surveys.

Of course, we have a lot of qualitative interaction with people, and (it’s) probably no surprise to many folks that, generationally, we’re mostly less confident in the kitchen. And so, that creates opportunities for businesses and industries to really innovate and deliver these products to be more relevant to fit into the way that people live today, their lifestyles today.

So, again, that’s the brutal facts that we had to really recognize and come to terms with and really (use to) fuel innovative ideas in terms of product development processing for their cooking, etc., to make our products fit into consumers’ busy lifestyles.


I’m just wondering: Are the numbers in? Do you have the data to know yet whether there has been a massive shift from dining out to preparing meals at home and — well, we know that’s happened, but how has it impacted pork sales?

Yeah. Well, pork sales are up. They are up significantly. And that’s a tremendous story, given the challenges that we’re facing, you know, globally with the pandemic. My goodness, it’s just been devastating, and you know, our hearts go out to all those that have been affected by the coronavirus. Certainly, our industry has.

But, in the same breath, when you look at the end product and the distribution channels that we have, we have been able, as a pork industry, to successfully grow the demand for pork and the sales, specifically at the retail point of purchase, and what a seismic shift — from food service and eating out on a regular basis to, now, obviously, almost exclusively, in most areas, eating at home.

And so, again, the entire meat department sales in this year, 2020, compared to 2019, are up 24.2% and that additional $6.2 billion in the retail meat category versus a year ago. It’s a huge, huge swing and shift in consumer behavior. For pork specifically, pork is actually ahead of the game and (is) taking some share from competing proteins in the category — beef and chicken, specifically.

Pork sales are up 30% in 2020 versus 2019. So, again, the category is growing significantly, and I’m proud to say that pork is ahead of the game (and is) significant percentage points ahead of the category as a whole.


During your (Alltech ONE Virtual Experience) presentation, you noted that pork is the number-one consumed protein globally, but fresh pork is the featured protein in less than 7% of entrée options when dining out in the U.S., as opposed to cooking at home. I wonder: What accounts for such low interest in pork on the part of American diners? Is there some kind of perception issue, do you think?

Well, that’s a great question. The fresh pork — you have to distinguish between fresh and the further-cooked or value-added pork.


So, we look at bacon; bacon is ubiquitous. So, that’s sort of the outlier. We have to look at bacon somewhat separately because it’s across almost all menus.

Yes, we must have bacon.

[Laughs] Yeah. My job is to not screw that up. People love their bacon, and that’s a great thing.

Oh, this is the land of the BLT, I think.

Absolutely. And we’re in that season, and hopefully, that season will be extended. The challenge is — with fresh pork, candidly — is the perceptions of the labor and the time that it takes in the food service space. And as you know, prior to COVID-19, that was in-demand, right? And just in time, things were moving fast and got to be quick on the grill, and so, there’s this perception for most that perhaps fresh pork doesn’t fit into that systematic process as well as competing proteins do.

However, that being said, those in the know have proven to be tremendously successful with fresh pork on their menus. And they’re celebrity, high-profile chefs, like Matt Abdoo at Pig Beach in Brooklyn, as an example, or Jose Mendin at Pubbelly in Miami or Adam Sappington at Country Cat in Portland, Oregon. The list goes on and on. These well-known chefs that are truly on the cutting edge and driving trends in the food-service industry have embraced that farm-to-pork story and, really, sustainability in general, in terms of using all pieces and parts of the pig, specifically. And the tremendous value that comes from that (is) the story that comes from that and, obviously, the great flavor and variety of dishes that can be prepared with that.

And we know that a lot of food service operators are watching people like that. So, that’s why we choose to really spend a lot of time with those well-known chefs and have some great partnerships (with those) that are demonstrating pork on the menu differently than most people are probably accustomed to.


Well, Jarrod, you have said that you are data-heavy and assumption-light, and that’s an interesting phrase. Can you elaborate for us?

Yeah. We’ve built a confidence here at U.S. National Pork Board to capture big data. And you know, there’s a lot of businesses and industries that, obviously, are spending a lot of time looking at data, but the U.S. National Pork Board is looking at it a bit differently than any one of our stakeholders does individually.

For us, we’re capturing consumer trends through syndicated data sources. We’re fielding customers’ search stories — or studies, excuse me — to essentially, you know, discover some of the specific questions that we have and answer those through these quantitative studies. We’re obviously partnering with a number of land-grant universities to do production-related research, and the list goes on and on.

And so, the confidence we have at the U.S. National Pork Board is really building this data ecosystem, right? An ecosystem of partners, each having a very specific role for the information that they provide to give us a unique, holistic picture of what the world is telling us. That data exists because of, as I was mentioning earlier, the exhaust, the digital exhaust that we’re all leaving a trail of on a daily basis.

If you think about it smartly and you weave this, you know, ecosystem of data partners together, you can get a very unique view of how the world continues to evolve and its expectations for your industry and for your product. And that’s what exactly we’ve attempted to do. We continue to refine it, but our secret sauce, if you will, is truly that unique set of data partners that, essentially, can answer any question that we bring forward. And I’d say that’s a pretty unique offering at the U.S. National Pork Board.


Speaking of data, last year, the Pork Board released research looking at trends in consumer behavior related to dining out. More than 10,000 consumers were surveyed, many food-service operators were interviewed, and all of that was paired with volumetric data and syndicated food-service data. The study is said to have uncovered why consumers decide to eat the proteins they eat. What did you learn from that?

That’s exactly right, Tom, and that’s a great example of how to become data-heavy and assumption-light. It’s essentially a consumer decision (in) three (parts). You know, it starts with: What type of dish do I want? Am I looking at indulging taste? Am I looking for nurturing health? Do I just need something quick and convenient on the go?

And the next piece in the consideration set: Who am I dining with? Am I going out with friends or co-workers, my family? Do I have a date? Is it just me? Am I in my car? Right?

The third piece, then, is: What kind of moment is it? Are we going out as part of a celebration? Is this a business luncheon or dinner? And, at the last minute, (will) I need something in the car on the go?

All of these things are critically important to understand in terms of the consumers’ decision-making process, so that you can, obviously, position your products accordingly.

For pork, what we know (that) the number-one reason that people order pork is the flavor. It’s culturally relevant, it’s culturally exciting. Essentially, what that means is it just tastes good; it’s all about the flavor.

The next piece — which, candidly, is a tremendous opportunity for pork — is the whole idea of if it’s good for me or not. That’s the whole nutritional story that, unfortunately, we’ve got some work to do. People have the misperception that — a lot of people, I should say — that, maybe, “Pork isn’t as good for me as other proteins,” and that’s just simply not true. We have an opportunity, using the data, to convey that in a very, you know, story-friendly way. It’s an important piece of the consideration set.

And then, the third and final piece: Is it good for the planet? Am I making a responsible choice? That sort of “permission to eat” is really becoming much more prominent with the consumer decision-making process — especially away from home, right, in food-service restaurants, because of the stories that (have) really been brought in on the menus as well as the, you know, the story of the proprietor or the restaurant owner and how they source what foods, from farm to pork to locally sourced to et cetera, et cetera.

So, flavor, “Is it good for me?” and “Is it good for the planet?” are really three important parts of the consideration process for consumers determining which protein they’re going to consume.


So, Jarrod, what about antibiotics? There is concern about whether or not pork is good for the planet, as you mentioned. How is the industry addressing consumer concerns about antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance?

By being very transparent. We have public reporting to ensure that anybody who’s interested in knowing what antibiotics are used, how often, for what purpose — this information is readily available and easily accessible for consumers.

More importantly, there are production practices longstanding in the U.S. pork industry in place to literally reduce the need for the use of antibiotics. I have the experience — I actually grew up on a farm in north-central Indiana. And I have a lot of family and friends that farm back there. Antibiotics cost money, and if you have to use antibiotics, that means you’ve got some illness disease issues. No farmer wants to spend any more money than they have to, so point being, they’re not going to use these antibiotics haphazardly, by any means.

Secondly, farmers wake up every day to ensure that they’re giving the best care for those animals, and that means protecting their health. That’s why we have (the) veterinary-client relationship status that’s required as part of the pork quality-assurance program, which is required to sell pigs at any given farming house in the United States. The veterinary-client relationship is critically important. That means you’ve got a trained veterinarian who’s overseeing any type of administration of antibiotics — but more importantly, (is following the) process to exhaust all other options before prescribing any of those antibiotics.

The second piece — and, arguably, the most important — is biosecurity. (There are) lots of questions about U.S. pork production and pigs in these barns, and you know, there’s signs up, and you’ve got to shower in before you can actually enter into the barn. What are they keeping secret in there? The reality is it’s because humans are carrying around, as we now know, more than ever, all kinds of potential viruses and diseases and things that could — bacteria — that could potentially give (or) introduce the sickness to the pigs. It’s not protecting us from the pigs; it’s protecting the pigs from us.

And so, by improving biosecurity and really, you know, being smart about how we provide the most cleanliness, the best climate-controlled facilities for these pigs to grow in, we’ve been able to improve overall herd health and reduce the need to use antibiotics.

And so, again, being very transparent is critically important, (and establishing a) close working relationship with a veterinarian is, obviously, the most important. And then third is to improve our overall production practices, and biosecurity in particular, to reduce the need (for antibiotics).


A couple of years ago, when you were vice president of domestic marketing at the Pork Board, you noted then a need to know, from the value consumer all the way to the premium consumer, how they are thinking about their food needs and how pork currently fits into those needs. Have those questions been answered?

That, Tom, is a constantly evolving opportunity. I’m tired of saying the word “challenge.” It’s an opportunity for us — especially in the challenging economic times that we’re facing. There are more value-conscientious shoppers, and pork — especially fresh pork — is positioned well, versus competing proteins, as a valuable offering. The price is positioned well, especially as you look across the meat case.

And so, that’s a good thing for a number of reasons, but it’s not really something you want to anchor in on as your overall marketing strategy, right? We want to create more value, and so, thankfully, because of the versatility of the pig and the various cuts that come from the animal, we have a number of products that fit well into “white tablecloth restaurant” menus, which oftentimes get a premium for those products.

I mentioned those three chefs earlier; Adam Sappington in Portland, Oregon; Matt Abdoo in Brooklyn, New York; Jose Mendin in Miami. Those three restaurants, those three gentlemen’s restaurants — the County Cat in Portland and Pig Beach in Brooklyn, Pubbelly in Miami — those three are pork-centric restaurants. They’re incredibly successful and, again, clearly have, you know, positioned pork as a premium to likely introduce to a great number of consumers a different cut or a different way to prepare and serve that cut.

So, it continues to evolve. We obviously have a really important role to play in feeding a growing population in need, and thankfully, we have low-cost operating here in the middle of the United States, which gives us that value proposition and low-cost but also premium products that fit well into those five-star dining restaurant menus and really can meet both ends of the spectrum’s needs.


Okay. To briefly change the subject, if you could, tell us about your partnerships with Google and with YouTube.

Yeah. Google and YouTube really have been a tremendous experience for the U.S. National Pork Board — Google in particular, because I learned a long time ago that every sale starts with Google. Again, thinking data-heavy, assumption-light, Google is a tremendous partner to just give you a glimpse at culture (and) how trends continue to evolve, how they start to, you know, become a trend, and you really get a direct line of sight into what, you know, different segments of the population are thinking and how culture swings affect the actual search and purchase behavior. So, that partnership in it of itself has been tremendously valuable, because we want to make sure that when people are searching for information about pork, specifically, that we’ve got the factual, you know, right information at the right time. That’s critically important, and Google search enables that.

The YouTube partnership is really pretty interesting because, as we all know, YouTube continues to be a main stage for a number of up-and-coming content creators, and anybody who’s got a mobile device can post, you know, content onto YouTube. But there are a number of influencers who have millions of followers on YouTube who are delivering messaging and delivering information and, certainly, entertainment on a regular basis. So, with YouTube, we’ve been able to identify content creators that have significant numbers of followers — obviously, (we’re) primarily food-focused — where we can engage with them and, certainly, sponsor some episodes of their video series to feature pork.

The beautiful thing about YouTube is we just kind of give them some very broad talking points and direction. Obviously, we give them support, and then we watch them do what they do. That authenticity and that passion for pork and, you know, all of the things that make their videos worth watching — it wouldn’t work as a paid commercial; you’ve got to let those creators do what they do. And so, that means you got to release some of the control, and we’ve had a lot of great success doing that, with five videos over the last 24 months that the U.S. Pork Board has invested in with partnerships on YouTube. They’ve been trending videos, which means they’re at the top of YouTube worldwide, which is really a tremendous feat. It just doesn’t happen with “sponsored” videos.

So, it speaks to the authenticity and creativity of the content creators, the loyalty that they have in the fans that subscribe to their content — and, obviously, both of their passions for pork. And thankfully, we’ve seen a growth in favorability and, certainly, a growth in, you know, loyalty for pork products as a result of it.


Well, Jarrod, I have to ask, because I think inquiring minds want to know, but what’s your favorite pork dish?

[Laughs] I get that question a lot. You know, I’m the pork guy in a lot of circles — my social circles, in particular. And I never get tired of it, to be honest with you. If I had to choose, I’ve got to say two. One is barbecue ribs. You can’t beat barbecue ribs. Number two is tonkatsu, a Japanese dish, and it’s one of my favorites, for sure. So, I’d have to say it’s a tie: barbecue ribs and tonkatsu.


Jarrod Sutton, senior vice president of strategy and innovation at the National Pork Board. Thanks so much, Jarrod.

Yeah, Tom. Thanks for having me. It’s a great pleasure.

I’m Tom Martin, and this has been AgFuture, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us, and be sure to subscribe to AgFuture wherever you listen to podcasts. And leave a review if you’ve enjoyed this episode.

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