Pork Consumers’ Desires Drive On-Farm Evolution

3/27/2013 8:21:48 AM
By Craig Head

“The Changes in Food Consumption” Part 1 - We hope “The Changes in Food Consumption” series will shed light on why farmers and ranchers use the practices they do when raising the food we eat. Look for part two of this series in the June 2013.

What do records, eight-tracks, cassette tapes and CDs have in common? The simple answer is they all represent a way in which we listened, or in some cases still listen, to music; but more than that, each was cutting edge technology in the music industry at one point in time. Records are great, but you can’t play them in your car, much less strap them to your arm for a morning run. CDs are nice, but when you can put thousands of songs on an MP3 player, they feel a little cumbersome to drag along. The evolution of the music industry highlights how consumer wants and needs change over time and how technology has helped meet those demands. Change is inevitable and no one is immune from its influence, including farmers and ranchers.

Jim Pillen, a third generation pork producer from Columbus, Neb., knows this lesson well. The evolution of pig farming might not be as visible to the average person, but the changes on the Pillen farm over generations are more than on par with evolutions in the music industry.

“I’m guessing most people would be surprised to learn the primary reason for raising pigs in Nebraska wasn’t always for food. When my granddad returned home after World War I, he started raising pigs because he needed lard and soap. Protein was looked at as a secondary benefit of raising pigs,” Pillen said March 14.

As America’s population and its demand for meat grew, the focus of the pig on farms shifted from role of utility player to primary protein source.

To the left is one of several tours that Jim Pillen gives on his farm.

“The growing demand for pork as protein changed everything, from the way we viewed the pig to how it was raised. What you see on our farms today is a direct result of what the market place has told us it has wanted over the years,” Pillen said.
Chief among the changes sought by pork consumers was the desire for a leaner type of pork. A product you can’t simply generate overnight or without some very specific changes in the way in which the pigs are bred and raised.

“As we’ve become more health conscious as a society, people wanted less fat in their diet, which means we needed our pigs to also be leaner and less fatty. We’ve done that through selective breeding. The off-shoot is that pigs with less fat can’t survive temperature extremes, particularly harsh winters. That’s one of the primary reasons people see pigs being raised inside climate controlled buildings today,” he said.

The other key to raising a leaner pig is health and nutrition, something that is considerably easier to manage in a more controlled environment.

“If you want to be lean you watch what you eat. We do the same with the pigs. The use of technology combined with buildings and individual stalls, gives us the ability to ensure each animal is getting the proper nutrition and care. That’s how we are able to provide the leaner product consumers are wanting,” Pillen said.

For all the changes made on the Pillen’s farm to meet the needs of consumers, what’s more impressive is the fact that those changes haven’t led to a shortage of meat protein in grocery store coolers or sacrificing in other important areas. Pillen credits that to farmer’s long-term focus on sustainability and efficiency in their ability to “make more food with less.”

“Over the last 50 years we’ve been able to raise 80 percent more pigs using 40 percent less land and 40 percent less water. We’ve been able to do that while helping put leaner cuts of pork on the dinner table. When you think about what we’ve been able to accomplish from a carbon footprint standpoint, it’s really an amazing story,” said Pillen.

For those wondering if farmers and ranchers are really paying attention to the wants and needs of their customers, the story of the Pillen family and others like them should be music to your ears…no matter what technology you use to listen.

Cook Pork to 145º F

Pork today is very lean and shouldn’t be overcooked. To check doneness, use a digital cooking thermometer. The National Pork Board follows the guidance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which recommends cooking roasts, tenderloins and chops to an internal temperature of 145° F, followed by a 3 minute rest time, resulting in a flavorful, tender and juicy eating experience. Ground pork, like all ground meat, should be cooked to 160° F. Pre-cooked ham can be reheated to 140° F or enjoyed cold.

Pork Fun Facts
  • Pork is the world’s most widely eaten meat.
  • There are more than 180 species of pigs, found on every continent except Antarctica.
  • Pigs are often thought to be dirty, but actually keep themselves quite clean. Most pigs are kept inside barns where the producer uses fans and misters to keep them comfortable, clean and safe. Pigs do not have sweat glands and need a controlled environment to stay comfortable.
  • The average market weight of today’s lean hog is about 265 pounds.
  • Although pork is very popular in the United States, it is China that is the No. 1 producer and consumer of fresh pork.
  • Pigs can run about 7 miles per hour.

Hogs Medical Facts

  • Hogs are a source of nearly 40 drugs and pharmaceuticals on the market.
  • Pig skin is used to treat massive burns in humans due to its similarity to human skin.
  • Since 1971, thousands of hog heart valves have been successfully implanted in humans to save lives.
  • Swine research led to the development of the CAT scan, a technology for examining internal organs without surgery.

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