The United States pork niche market phenomenon

By M. S. Honeyman, R. S. Pirog, G. H. Huber, P. J. Lammers, and J. R. Hermann - After the broad industrialization of the US pork industry, there has been a development of niche markets for export and domestic pork; that is, there is a pork niche market phenomenon.
calendar icon 27 November 2006
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The US pork niche market phenomenon is characterized, and 2 of the major markets are explained in detail. With the Midwest’s tradition of a diversified family-based agriculture and record low hog prices of the late 1990s, the conditions were conducive for this phenomenon to develop. Pork niche markets utilize various sales methods including Internet sales, local abattoir sales, direct marketing, farmer networks, and targeting to organized groups. In 2003, there were approximately 35 to 40 active pork niche marketing efforts in Iowa. The Berkshire breed is an example of a swine breed that has had a recent resurgence because of niche markets.

Berkshire pork is known for tenderness and excellent quality. Berkshire registrations have increased 4-fold in the last 10 yr. One of the larger niche marketers of “natural pork” is Niman Ranch Pork, which has more than 400 farmer-producers and processes about 2,500 pigs weekly. Many US consumers of pork are interested in issues concerning the environment, food safety, pig welfare, and pig farm ownership and structure. These consumers may be willing to pay more for pork from farmers who are also concerned about these issues.

Small- and medium-sized swine farmers are active in pork niche markets. Niche markets claim product differentiation by superior or unique product quality and social attributes. Quality attributes include certain swine breeds, and meat quality, freshness, taste or flavor, and tenderness. Social or credence attributes often are claimed and include freedom from antibiotics and growth promotants; local family farm production; natural, organic, outdoor, or bedded rearing; humane rearing; known origin; environmentally friendly production; and the absence of animal by-products in the feed.

Niche pork markets and alternative swine production practices offer an unusual contrast to commodity pork markets and industrial confinement swine production. Because they strive to have these attributes in their product, the niche pork market producers are a distinct clientele group. If niche pork markets continue to flourish, the markets and the producers that supply them will be a viable sector in a diverse US pork industry.


Niche refers to a specialized market or “a status for which a thing is best fitted.” A phenomenon is an “observable or significant fact or event” or an “exceptional or unusual occurrence” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2005).

After the recent broad industrialization of the US pork industry, there has been a development of spe- cialty or niche markets for export and domestic pork, both fresh and cured. The work of supplying these markets has coupled local and regional abattoirs with small- and medium-sized independent swine farms (farms that produce <2,000 pigs annually), primarily in the Midwestern United States. A pork niche phenomenon was described earlier (Honeyman, 2005). The purpose of this article is to characterize the pork niche phenomenon in the United States and describe 2 of the major niche markets in detail as examples.

Niche pork markets claim product differentiation in 2 general ways—superior or unique product quality, and social or credence attributes. Quality attributes include meat quality (pH, color, water holding capacity, and intramuscular fat), freshness, taste, and tenderness. Social or credence attributes usually have little direct impact on meat quality. Examples of credence attributes are natural, reared without antibiotics, pasture raised, and others (Honeyman, 2005).

Several of the large, integrated US pork companies have developed “premium” pork brands [e.g., Premium Standard Farms, Smithfield, and Cargill (Salvage, 2005a)]. These premium pork brands are not included in this article, although premium branded pork may be included in some definitions of niche pork. This article focuses on the emerging, relatively new (within the last 10 yr) niche marketers that are procuring pork from independent producers and selling pork in the domestic and export markets for a premium.

November 2006

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