Glen Taylor sees green in 'war on big food'

Prime Pork plant in Windom, Minn.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and other investors bought this plant in Windom in southwest Minnesota in early 2016. They plan to process hogs here.
Mark Steil | MPR News

Consumer suspicion about where and how our food is produced is widespread, and it's roiling the food production industry. Big companies like General Mills, Cargill and others are trying to navigate this changing landscape.

The changes in consumer tastes and spending have been dramatic and rapid. Fortune magazine called it "The War on Big Food". One consumer survey found only 40 percent of respondents believed the food system is headed in the right direction.

Many consumers have a new demand of their food: to know it was produced in a way that's benign to animals and the environment.

Now Glen Taylor, the billionaire owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, sees the trends as a business opportunity.

Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves
Glen Taylor
Alex Trautwig | Getty Images 2012 file

Taylor and a group of investors are spending millions of dollars to convert a former beef plant into a hog processing facility, Prime Pork. They plan to open by January.

Nearly all the equipment is brand new, said plant manager Wayne Kies. Robots will do some of the butchering, including a robotic arm designed to remove ribs.

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The plant will process more than 6,000 hogs a day, which makes it a medium-sized operation.

"We want to produce a quality, consistent product," Kies said.

Taylor said his involvement with the Windom facility grew out of his earlier research into opportunities in the meat business. When tough times in the beef processing industry forced a plant in Windom to close last year, Taylor was interested.

Many consumers want details about the meat they buy, and Prime Pork will be able to deliver that information, he said.

Plant in Windom
Glen Taylor says consumers want more information about their food and the Prime Pork company will supply those details.
Mark Steil | MPR News

"The customer can know which farms the hogs came from," Taylor said. "How they're raised, what they're fed, how they're treated."

Hogs from each farm supplying the plant will move through the plant together as a group. That will make it easier to keep track of where each cut of meat originated.

With an eye toward the export and natural foods market, the company will not accept hogs treated with ractopamine, a growth stimulant used on most of the nation's swine farms. The world's fastest growing pork market — China — bans the drug.

And Taylor said the company will adapt its practices in response to customer reaction.

"I think you listen to your customers," he said. "You listen to the market."

The market has been saying plenty lately.

A Food Marketing Institute survey of 5,000 consumers earlier this year shows how attitudes are changing. It found that shoppers want more facts about the food they buy than in the past.

"I think that there is a demand and an expectation this day and age that I should be able to find out any information about anything that I want," said David Fikes with the Food Marketing Institute.

Shoppers still have traditional concerns like price and quality. But the survey found that roughly half of consumers' food decisions are driven by what are called "evolving factors." Those include food safety, leading to more demand for organic and other "natural" products.

But the evolving factors also include things like fair treatment of workers, humane animal practices, and adequate environmental protections. Food businesses will have to address those social concerns to maximize sales, said Fikes.

"I think both the retailers and the farmers have to become a little more aware of the fact that we live in an information age," he said.

This trend may accelerate in the future. The demographic group that will soon dominate food buying is also the population most concerned about how their food is produced.

A survey cited in the Food Marketing Institute report found that 43 percent of millennials distrust large food companies — more than double the rate of the rest of the population.

Editors note (Oct. 17, 2016): This story has been updated to clarify that Fikes was referring to all U.S. food businesses in the need to address social concerns.