Pigs 75% leaner than ’50s, trichinosis no longer a worryPublished 8:43am Friday, April 30, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
It’s not your parents’ pork.
Not in an evolving industry in which U.S. producers are the largest pork exporters on the planet and their pigs are 75 percent leaner than in the 1950s.
To eat like a pig today, skip snacks and stick to a diet of grains such as corn, barley and soybeans mixed with vitamins and minerals.
It’s all mixed together, sometimes into a pellet, like dog food. Animal feed can be purchased from a feed mill or mixed on the farm.
Lots of scientific research helped farmers know the exact amount and type of food a pig needs as it grows. Nutritionists rely on the research to develop perfect feed for each stage of a pig’s life.
Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to shower before entering a pig barn – or at least pull on plastic boots over your shoes in the name of “biosecurity.”
Some farmers forbid visitors rather than regulate them to insure herd health is not violated by introducing outside germs and sickness. Farmers give their pigs antibiotics for sickness, but prefer prevention to treatment.
Such dramatic change helps meet consumers’ demand for lean, nutritious, safe and affordable food and a place at the table in the global food marketplace.
Big players include, not surprisingly, China, but also Denmark. Canada has cut back.
In 2006, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Maryland study determined pork tenderloin is as lean as a skinless chicken breast.
The six most common pork cuts are, on average, 16 percent leaner than 15 years ago, with saturated fat reduced 27 percent.
Worldwide, pork is the No. 1 meat consumed, though not yet in the United States.
Michigan marketing more than 2 million hogs per year supports some 5,300 state jobs.
Eating pork is almost patriotic considering that plump porkers of the 1940s contained three inches of back fat which makes great pie crust, but is also rich in glycerin that contributed to the World War II effort in explosives.
Today’s pigs have less than an inch of back fat. Meat that much leaner even demands cooking a different way.
Where trichinosis used to be a concern if pork wasn’t cooked thoroughly, the way pigs are raised today, they’re not exposed to it.
Previous generations could put a pork roast in the oven, leave it all day and it would still be juicy. But today’s pork lacks that “cushion” of back fat and would be dry. “Don’t overcook your pork,” she said. “Pork can still be pink inside and it’s still healthy and safe. Trichinosis is killed at 137 degrees. We recommend you cook pork to about 160 degrees.”
Explosives aren’t the only useful pig byproducts.
“We like to say we use everything but the oink,” Michigan Pork Producers Executive Director Mary Kelpinski said April 29.
But a use has even been found for that with the motion detector at the MPPA home office in Holt.
Pig byproducts also provide buttons, crayons, chalk, medicines and medical treatments, from skin grafts for burn victims to heart valves, such as the one put in former first lady Barbara Bush.
“This is a very rural area, so everybody here is from a farm?” Kelpinski asked Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889, where she spoke as the guest of Chuck Ringland. “Most people are three generations removed from farming. They don’t understand that their milk and pork chops don’t come directly from the store. There’s a whole process that gets food to the store. I’m trying to help people reconnect with where their food comes from because, unfortunately, if people don’t understand agriculture, they don’t understand the production practices of how we grow or raise the food, which makes being a farmer much more difficult.”
Kelpinski illustrates that evolution by showing a picture of her little red 1914 LAZ Acres barn, contrasted with a finishing facility in the Thumb where 50-pounders are confined in pens until they reach market weight, about 280 pounds.
Another barn near Mason specializes in pigs that are pregnant or going to be, with a white curtain which rises to add warmth or falls to catch a breeze.
Such buildings are designed with comfort in mind – hog heaven! – such as special ventilation or misters. One way pigs differ from humans is their inability to sweat.
“We can perspire and cool off, so pigs can run through the sprinkler like we did when we were kids,” Kelpinski said.
A onetime practice of feeding pigs garbage is not only discredited, it’s illegal.
“People still think of little red barns with cows, pigs, sheep and chickens in it,” she said, “and that’s really not what agriculture is about today. My sons – the younger started driver training Wednesday – raise a few show pigs for the county fair, and they’ve also gone to national shows in Louisville. They get to learn where their food comes from and understand the circle of life. While our farm is a wonderful opportunity for my boys, it’s not the type that’s going to feed very many people. We can put a few pigs in our freezer and sell a few to our neighbors and friends and those who go to the fair, but we’ve really become a global player in the marketing of pork, so we need operations big enough to feed all of these people, and with our economy the way it is, we need to make sure our food remains affordable. To do that, we have to be efficient.”
Consumers began to think seriously about what they ate and how it affected their health in the 1970s.
“With that three inches of back fat,” Kelpinski said, “everybody thought pigs weren’t healthy to eat, unfortunately.”
Ham, bacon, sausage, pepperoni and pork chaps all come from pigs.
“We saw demand go down and chicken sales go up. That’s probably around the time Cass County started shrinking. Cass County used to be one of the largest pork-producing counties in the country. You’re still in the top 100, but you’re not in the (U.S.) top 10 anymore.” Allegan County paces Michigan pork production.
“We had to change everything,” she said, “but fortunately our changes really paid off. Our pork is much leaner.”
Pigs come in many different breeds.
Some farms specialize in one breed, but most pigs raised combine two or three different breeds to reap the best traits from each.
The four most common breeds are:
• Landrace – large, muscular white pigs recognizable by their droopy ears. This breed is known for strong maternal abilities and adapting to different climates.
• Yorkshire – most popular, grow quickly, have many piglets and produce very lean, high-quality pork.
• Hampshire – black, with a white belt across their shoulders. They are known for fast growth, muscling and very lean pork.
• Duroc – solid red and also known for fast growth, stamina and high-quality meat products.
Comparing pork to chicken and beef, Kelpinski said, “Roasted pork tenderloin is lower in calories, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, which really surprises people. And we received a lot of press publicity as major publications picked up on that fact.”
People magazine profiled a nurse’s aide eating pork as part of her weight-loss program.
“Eating more protein decreases other things, like snacks,” Kelpinski said. “It can help you lose weight. The Los Angeles Times did a really interesting comparison between pork, chicken and beef and found pork was a very good source of vitamins and minerals.
“Cooking Light (magazine) compared center-cut bacon to turkey sausage. Everybody thinks if it’s got turkey in it it’s got to be lean, nutritious and healthy for you. They found pork was lower in cholesterol than turkey. Research in the British Journal of Nutrition found that if you start off your day with a good source of protein, such as bacon, you’ll get a feeling of fullness and be less likely to snack throughout the day and keep you on track in a weight-loss program.”
As for export potential, in 1986 about $2 from every pig sold came from “offshore customers.” MPPA saw a record-breaking “phenomenal year” in 2008, she said.
“We exported more pork than we had containers to ship it in” to the tune of $42 for every pig sold. A “dip” in 2009 to $38 can be attributed to H1N1, the so-called “swine flu.”
“Mis-named,” she said. “It closed all the export markets. China just opened up about two weeks ago, so now we can export to China.”
Pork exports account for a $5 billion share of business.
“Japan is our number-one customer. Even with the downturn, we still exported $1.5 billion worth of pork to Japan,” Kelpinski said.
“A lot of people out there look to us to feed them. We use about $38 billion of pork in this country. In 2008, we exported about 25 percent of the pork we raised. We help out other agricultural commodities by using 10 percent of the corn (1.4 billion bushels) and 10 percent of the soybeans (283 million bushels) to feed our pigs. Ethanol has been a concern for us and hampered our ability to make a profit because corn prices went through the roof. Over 60 percent of the cost of raising a pig is feed.”
Kelpinski said. “Pork producers lost a lot of money in the last 30 months, averaging a loss of about $20 per pig. We thought everything was going to turn around last year until H1N1 broke out. Things are looking up now. Hog futures prices are looking awesome. Hopefully, all the pork producers around here will be back in the black soon.”
Michigan has 2,100 pork producers raising 2 million pigs annually, ranking “13th or 14th” nationally. Iowa is No. 1. Minnesota and North Carolina jockey for No. 2, the latter looking to replace its king cash crop, tobacco.
While Cass County still has some pigs raised outdoors, “Most are raised inside so we can monitor their health better than when they’re running around a pasture,” Kelpinski said. “They’re safe from predators, such as coyotes. And if they do get sick, we can treat them. We also have tried to be better neighbors. All farmers are the original recyclers. We’ve been talking at Michigan State a long time about being green.”
“In the 1930s and ’40s,” Kelpinski said, “we spent about 25 percent of our income on food. Today, 10 percent. We’ve really done a very good job of raising food economically and keeping the cost down, so we can afford to feed the starving people we still see. Food safety is our number-one priority.”