BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Small regional companies have important roles to play in retail meat cases and in the food safety education of retailers, wholesalers and consumers.
That's according to the American Meat Institute's Mary Alice McKenzie, the first chairwoman in AMI's 90-year history. She officially takes over from Carl W. Kuehne as of this month's annual convention in Toronto.
"My company is a very small, family-owned, specialty meat company, so it's a really different perspective that I bring to AMI," said McKenzie, who is also president of McKenzie of Vermont, based here.
Having appeared in an AMI-sponsored ad as part of a new campaign to make the industry more consumer-friendly (see related article, Page 25), McKenzie emphasizes that one major challenge the industry currently is addressing is its image.
"One thing we face a lot is negative media perception about meat. I work in the industry every day and I can't relate to things I hear," she said.
"I think that as chair I can be the first step in talking about who we are as an industry," she explained. "I think we very often get portrayed to consumers as being about huge companies, commodity driven, a very highly mechanized type of industry.
"The reality is there are lots of small family-owned businesses who are supportive of community, and we haven't done a very good job communicating who we are to consumers."
McKenzie's kind of company represents the bulk of AMI membership -- 60% to 70% are companies with 100 or fewer employees.
Another example of what AMI would classify as "misinformation," McKenzie indicated, is the impression from the media that consumers are eating less meat. Americans are actually eating 220 pounds of meat and poultry per capita this year, according to AMI. That figure is up from last year and every other year, McKenzie pointed out.
Through the new campaign AMI hopes to increase consumer trust in meat products, and to instill the image of the "regular people" behind those products. In addition, AMI hopes to work closer with retailers on two issues: one of which is to more accurately gauge consumer preferences.
"As somebody who runs a [specialty meat] company, I spend my whole day trying to find out what do consumers want when they go to the supermarket, and we can't really understand what consumers want unless we talk to retailers."
In addition to the ever-present demand for convenience, McKenzie believes the industry needs to take up familiar issues of taste, variety and low-fat/healthy products and link them.
"We need to adapt to a healthy lifestyle, and I think 'low-fat but flavorful' is a real issue -- with some low-fat products out there, people just don't like the taste."
In the near future, the meat industry will spend a lot of its time teaching consumers about food safety, particularly as gaps in their knowledge of safe cooking and handling practices have become more apparent, she said.
"As an industry we have a great opportunity to fill the void. People are bombarded all day long with messages -- this is one that really needs to get across."
And retailers will be part of this effort, she added. "I think AMI has started to form some very strong relationships with retailers on the food safety issue. If we do our job right, it's essential for the integrity of the retailer that they get it right, too, in terms of relations with customers. They're as tired of negative perceptions as we are.
"We're definitely going to see Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points plans go from farm to family. We're going to begin working with retailers and wholesalers on how to develop HACCP plans at their facilities, because we recognize that once the product goes to them, there's still a lot of room for [improper handling]."
McKenzie can testify to the benefits of HACCP from first-hand experience. "At my company we've [had a safety program] for years. We're near to having HACCP now, and we've already seen differences in quality of product.
"We're doing completely different sanitation, production and processing than we did five years ago, and it works."
Regional companies, especially those with unique specialty products, are going to become a lot more high profile in many meat cases, she said. "I think there will be an increase in more regional companies' products. There are some very dynamic, small, regional companies out there coming out with new ideas, because the feedback we're getting is that consumers are bored, so that's a vital role for smaller companies to fill.
Appearances are deceiving when it comes to larger national companies, she added. "When you go to the case you'll see the usual national brands, but some company that you've never heard of might be the market leader in that area."