KANSAS CITY, MO. – The coronavirus has accelerated a trend that already had plenty of momentum: healthy eating.

For many consumers, that means choosing foods for themselves and their children that are produced as cleanly as possible.

Hatfield, Pa.-based Clemens Food Group took a big step toward expanding its retail presence in the clean-label meat space through a June deal with Fresh Thyme Farmers Market.

Sandra Sage, Clemens’ vice president of market solutions, said the deal represents a perfect match of retailer and supplier when it comes to clean-label commitment. Clemens’ Farm Promise brand, which will now be marketed at Fresh Thyme stores, is US Department of Agriculture-verified under the No Antibiotics Ever (NAE) claim.

“Fresh Thyme’s mission aligns perfectly with ours,” she said. “As we continue to grow the Farm Promise brand, we are constantly looking for top-quality retailers with a sizeable market footprint.”

The deal, she added, is “extremely significant” because it provides Clemens with the chance to bring NAE pork to mainstream audiences.

In the partnership, Fresh Thyme is replacing conventional meat products with Farm Promise bacon, sausage, ground pork and pork tenderloins and chops. New product began being sold the week of July 6.

“As we continue to grow the Farm Promise name, we look for top-quality retailers with a sizeable market footprint,” Sage said. “Fresh Thyme’s rapid expansion naturally puts us in the perfect position to capitalize on the ‘accountable food’ market. In short, it was the perfect fit.” 

Clemens’ vertically integrated network distributes supply from American farms throughout the nation. Clemens pigs are never given antibiotics, are 100% gestation crate-free, and are fed a vegetarian diet. The brand is an all-natural, NAE alternative to conventional pork. 

Continuous improvement

Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods has had a company-wide clean label initiative for several years and continues to work on simplifying the ingredient statements of many of its retail and foodservice products through the removal or replacement of ingredients, while still delivering great-tasting items that consumers expect, said Melissa Bonorden, a research scientist on Hormel’s Research & Development team.

Among the items Hormel is focused on removing are nitrites, BHA/BHT, sodium phosphate, carrageenan and TBHQ.

“Several products across our portfolio offer clean label varieties like our Applegate natural and organic meats, Hormel Natural Choice products, Valley Fresh 100% Natural Chicken Breast products and Jennie-O turkey products, as well as many others throughout our brand items,” Bonorden said.

While demand for all protein is considerably up during the COVID pandemic, it has not slowed the demand for clean label products, Sage said.

In fact, just the opposite is true.

“The demand for clean label products have actually increased at a higher rate than our conventional products during the same timeframe last year,” she said.

Clemens has already moved the majority of its Hatfield brand portfolio to “all natural” status and has seen huge gains in volume and dollar sales for its Dry Rubbed Marinated tenderloins and loin filets. 

And the company is looking to expand its footprint for the Farm Promise brand because Sage and others see the increase in consumer demand for “better for you” proteins as a long term demand that Clemens is perfectly positioned to fulfill.  

“Consumers are looking for claims like All Natural, hormone free, antibiotic free and vegetarian fed,” Sage said. “Clemens Food Group sees clean label and NAE products as integral to our future and will become table stakes for consumers moving forward.”

Clemens has been on a journey towards “cleaning up” all labels on its Hatfield branded products and are about halfway through its entire portfolio at this point, she added. 

“We will continue to evolve our portfolio to respond to the consumers’ increasing demand for transparency and desires for minimally processed and more All Natural products.

Some of Clemens’ top clean label sellers include its marinated tenderloin and loin filets and All Natural sausage offerings, which include Recipe Essentials brand ground pork and sausage.  

Looking ahead, Clemens is reviewing the feasibility of adding hams, breakfast products and precooked and pulled pork options to its lineup.

Sage cited a number of factors that help differentiate Clemens clean-label products in the marketplace:

  • Clemens’ local multi-generational family farms provide consistent access to a fresh supply of no antibiotics ever pork.  
  • The company’s pigs are born, raised and harvested in the United States, and its unique vertical coordination affords it the ability to provide wholesome products at a consistent and affordable price.  
  • Clemens puts better food within reach so retailers can supply fresh from the farm pork from a company they can trust without breaking their budget. 
  • The company is vertically coordinated, allowing it to provide consistent, uninterrupted supply which translates into optimal in-stock conditions at store level 

Chipotle gives Niman Ranch ecommerce boost

Northglenn, Colo.-based meat producer Niman Ranch is one of four Chipotle suppliers that will get revamped versions of their ecommerce websites through the restaurant chain. Niman Ranch supplies Chipotle with pork for its carnitas and beef for its steak and barbacoa.

In June Chipotle announced the Chipotle Virtual Farmers Market, powered by Shopify, that will allow farmers in the Chipotle supply chain to launch improved versions of their sites.

Through individualized online marketplaces, Chipotle suppliers will be able to sell meat, dairy and grain products, and other items directly to consumers across the country. As a digital innovator known for seeking long-term solutions, Chipotle is assisting in the development of each supplier’s site, covering hosting fees on Shopify for two years and supporting the design and development of the direct-to-consumer storefronts.

“This new Virtual Farmers’ Market gives an opportunity for my farm, and hundreds of other small, sustainable farmers like me in the Niman Ranch network raising livestock humanely and without antibiotics, to remain sustainable and resilient through hard times,” said Kirsten Eckerman, a Wisconsin-based farmer for Niman Ranch.

“The agricultural industry has been weathering a crisis for years that has recently been magnified and accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Chipotle. “Farmers around the country have had to destroy millions of pounds of fresh goods due to decreased demand with restaurants, hotels and schools closed.”

The Chipotle Virtual Farmers’ Market aims to give Chipotle’s suppliers a new stream of revenue and enhance their commitment to sustainable farming practices amid unforeseen circumstances.

“It can be intimidating for many family farms to change the way they do business, so we’re giving our suppliers the right tools and resources to successfully launch improved eCommerce platforms,” said Chris Brandt, Chipotle’s chief marketing officer. “Our Food with Integrity values start with our farmers, and helping them adapt to new technologies and ways of reaching the consumer is crucial for both the future of the farming industry and Chipotle.”

The other Chipotle suppliers that will get ecommerce boosts from the chain are Petaluma Creamery, McKaskle Family Farm and Meister Cheese.

Each product used in Chipotle restaurants is called out next to each farm on the Virtual Farmers’ Market homepage, so fans can easily order key ingredients in their favorite menu items.

Throughout the rollout, Chipotle’s Director of Culinary and Menu Development Chef Chad Brauze will share Chipotle Virtual Farmers’ Market-inspired recipes on Chipotle’s TikTok channel.

Customers from around the country can find links to each supplier’s virtual storefront by visiting: farmersmarket.chipotle.com. The four storefronts can also be accessed directly. Over the past month, Chipotle and Shopify have worked together to lead virtual onboarding sessions with the partner farmers to help them get acquainted with Shopify’s eCommerce platform.