A Quebec agri-food company is betting the farm that demand for animal welfare products will continue to make its pork sales sizzle.
DuBreton has announced that it will spend $30 million over the next three years to produce 300,000 more crate-free pigs.
"Yes it's a gamble, but we think it's worth the risk," Vincent Breton, the family-owned company's third-generation president, told Canadian Grocer from DuBreton's main processing plant in Rivière-du-Loup, a 90-minute drive east of Quebec City.
Breton said that consumer demand for certified humane raised and handled pork is outpacing supply in both Canada and the United States.
Also known as pasture-raised or crate-free (in contrast to the standard confined and isolated conditions in which pregnant and nursing sows are kept) the certified humane label ensures the highest levels of animal welfare, according to the company.
"It now accounts for about 30% to 40% of DuBreton's sales," Breton said.
Breton did not divulge sales figures or the number of crate-free pigs his company currently processes. He did say, however, that both numbers are way up from 2003, when DuBreton started the certified humane process.
At that time, DuBreton was already a supplier of organic, antibiotic- and GMO-free pork to Whole Foods, Sobeys, Longo’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill and other natural and organic food markets.
The company now works with a network of some 300 of its own and family farms in Central and Eastern Canada, most of them in Quebec.
Breton said that the $30-million investment will be used to convert its own facilities and some Quebec partners to increase the production of humanely certified hogs.
Depending on the cut of meat and the retailer, Breton said both organic and humane raised products are between 30% and 50% more expensive than traditional pork.
"There's no denying this is a niche market," said Breton, who estimates that specialty pork products represent only 5% of the roughly 22 kilograms of pork that the average Canadian consumes annually.
"The big question is whether consumers are willing to pay higher prices for meat certified to have come from animals that were humanely raised? We believe the answer is yes."
Many restaurants in the U.S., he noted, are promising to stop selling pork from crate-raised pigs. (In a recent New York Times article, an executive chef in Manhattan said "no chef opens a restaurant nowadays without first considering where his products are coming from, whether vegetables or little piggies.”)
Grocers, too, are getting involved. In August, Sobeys launched its own brand of humanely-certified fresh chicken.
For food industry market analyst Kevin Grier, the key will be the importance consumers continue to give to animal welfare.
"Most people buy pork for the same reasons your grandmother did: price, safety, taste, and convenience," Grier said from his firm in Guelph, Ont.
"Going forward, the growth of humane raised products will depend entirely on the ability of the food industry and grocers to convince consumers they should buy them."