Although consumers have been slowly transitioning to buying meats with terms such as “no hormones,” “no antibiotics,” “humanely raised” and other such claims, COVID really made people think about healthier products, and sales data indicates the natural category grew significantly during the pandemic.

Midan Marketing, a research consultant for the meat industry with offices in Chicago and Mooresville, NC, conducted a report at the end of last year and found that nearly three-quarters of natural meat purchasers like to know where their fresh meat products come from.

“This signals that we have to do a better job than just adding a claim to the label,” Michael Uetz, principal of Midan Marketing, said. “We will have to find ways throughout the omnichannel experience to tell the story of where the meat comes from and how it was raised.”

The research also revealed that 49% of buyers of natural meats fell in the segment of Family-First Food Lovers.

This provides retailers the opportunity to tell a story about their natural meat products, helping them feel comfortable that the product they are buying is safe and healthy.

“These consumers center their family’s — especially their children’s — health and nutrition on their meat purchases. This group is seeking permission to feed this product to their family, opening the door for storytelling opportunities.”

The trend hasn’t let up, as consumers are not only seeking these claims in 2022, but they are also interested in knowing where their meat comes from and that it was humanely raised. They want assurance that the meat they are serving their friends and family is nutritious and responsibly produced.

Chris Oliviero, general manager of Northglenn, Colo.-based Niman Ranch, noted it used to be that brands that could slap on an “all-natural” claim and call it a day, but consumers have become much more savvy when it comes to natural meats.

“Consumers are increasingly wary of greenwashing and looking for verifiable claims from transparent brands,” he said. “We are increasingly seeing consumers —especially younger shoppers — ask about environmental sustainability when it comes to meat. They want to know what regenerative practices are happening on the farms and ranches so they feel good about how their purchases are making a difference and fighting climate change.”

To better tell its mission-based story, Niman Ranch released its first Impact Report this year, documenting the regenerative practices happening on its farms and the positive impacts the farmers and business model are having on the land, animals and rural communities.

One increasingly important attribute consumers are looking for in the natural category is cage-free meat. California’s Proposition 12 and Massachusetts’ Question 3 —state laws to ban the sale of pork, eggs and veal raised on farms using crates —has made consumers very attuned to this issue and other animal welfare topics.

“Consumers are more educated and empowered than ever and retailers need to be ready to answer their questions and meet their demands,” Oliviero said.

According to the Food Marketing Institute’s Power of Meat 2021, there is no doubt that consumers are becoming more educated about the rising practices behind the meat they eat, as four out of the five top claims shoppers want from their meat department are directly related to the way animals are raised.

“With the upcoming deadline for Proposition 12 in California, Question 3 in Massachusetts and the action of 10 other states over the past 10 years to provide more humane raising conditions for animals raised for food, these demands are making their way into law,” said Sarah Findle, director of marketing and communications for Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods. “Healthier animals mean better quality, natural meat, something Coleman Natural has known since the early days of selling the first USDA-recognized natural beef at retail.”

The Power of Meat report also revealed that a majority of consumers are willing to pay more for meat if it means guarding safety concerns and feeling confident they are feeding their family better. And this trend is already showing up at the register.

Dan Stewart, director of marketing for Creekstone Farms, Arkansas City, Kan., understands the natural category is an important part of retail customers’ meat cases, and the company focuses on providing them a product that gives shoppers the opportunity to enhance their protein experience.


Defining natural

Coleman Natural was the first meat company to advocate for and bear the official USDA “natural” label that required meat using the term to be raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

While the USDA downgraded the definition of “natural” as “minimally processed with no artificial ingredients,” most meat companies have their own definition and unique claims.

For instance, Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods’ Open Prairie Natural Meats brand goes a step further with its Never Ever program.

“Our beef and pork products come from animals that have never been given antibiotics, added hormones or growth promotants and are fed a 100% vegetarian diet,” said Britney Banuelos, senior brand manager for Tyson Foods’ fresh meats category.

According to Mintel, the most important attribute for red meat shoppers is that the meat be “all-natural.” Stewart noted the natural beef and pork programs from Creekstone Farms go a step beyond “all-natural” to ensure the company provides innovative products that will inspire customers and consumers.

“The Creekstone Farms’ Natural Black Angus Beef program includes several key elements, including no antibiotics, added hormones or growth promotants — ever,” he said. “The program is certified humane by the Humane Farm Animal Care, an industry-leading group that has certified the system since 2015. We believe this is an important element to our program as the Certified Humane certification is a third-party recognition that ensures animals are calm, relaxed and well cared for throughout their entire lives.”

Importance of marketing

While prioritizing claims is important, Tyson Foods believes transparency and storytelling is a more valuable way to connect with shoppers and increase sales.

“Consumers will spend more on brands they trust and that share their values,” Banuelos said. “To help supermarkets reach the consumer throughout their shopping journey, we have developed a comprehensive toolbox of marketing materials which include producer stories, the nutritional benefits of our products, and our animal standards.”

Coleman Natural Foods assists retailers by providing informative point of sale materials with QR codes for curious customers to learn more about raising practices and the farmers behind the brand.

“We also have worked with retailers to put together customized, informative videos about our brand story to ensure shoppers are confident in the better-for-you brands they choose,” Findle said.

Transparency is key for consumers and the more retailers can differentiate their product selection and showcase authentic brands and stories, the more loyal shoppers will be.

As an example, Niman Ranch has partnered with retailers to add QR codes to shelf talkers and the meat case to help them learn about sustainable practices on its farms, added video displays in meat departments for farmer videos and deployed geo-targeted social media ads to reach shoppers and educate them on trustworthy meat claims and labels.

“We have partnered with retailers to create destination sets in the meat case for truly premium, attribute-driven products,” Oliviero said. “We’ve filled these case sets with a mix of prepared, fresh and even different proteins. These unique case sets offer a one-stop shop for claims driven, higher value shoppers.”

Interest rising

The pandemic radically altered consumer shopping and purchasing habits. Natural meat demand exploded as home chefs shifted their food dollars from restaurants to home-cooked meals. That resulted in cooking skills improving and consumers becoming more accustomed to higher quality meats.

“During the peaks of the COVID pandemic, many consumers saw for the first time the limitations of the conventional meat sector,” Oliviero said. “People learned more about the food system than ever before and changed their shopping habits to support transparent brands that align with their values —and we are finding these new habits stuck.”

The natural segment is strong and still growing. As consumers become more engaged with their food, they are taking time to read label claims and are vested in knowing where their food comes from.

“Moving into 2022, brands can connect with consumers through storytelling and explaining how food gets to their table,” Banuelos said. “This is a category that still has a great deal of growth potential in the years ahead.”