By Samin Nosrat | Illustration by Marcos Sorenson
Before Edible San Francisco readers start lobbing flaming Molotov pigtails at me, let me say that as a cook, I was brought up in the Chez Panisse kitchen. And as a writer, I've studied with "Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan. Hopefully, that bit of history demonstrates my commitment to supporting a local food system. But, I am also an environmentalist, and as a cook, I pride myself in taking a holistic view of things, both in the kitchen and beyond. So when I started hearing about why, when it comes to pork, the "Buy Local" creed doesn't always lead to the most responsible consumer decisions, I was intrigued. Here's what I've learned:
Midwestern pork from family farms has a smaller carbon footprint. Transporting large amounts of grain over long distances generates a lot of CO2 emissions. Paul Willis, manager of Niman Ranch Pork Company, draws this picture, "On average, a pig must eat 4 pounds of grain to gain a pound of weight, but less than half of a pig's weight at slaughter is edible. So, should you ship 8 pounds of grain from the Midwest, where it is grown, to feed the Californian pigs, or 1 pound of pork from the Midwest to feed the Californian humans?" Environmentally, the choice is clear: ship less weight.
As for the local-grain argument, Iowa prosciutto maker Herb Eckhouse points out that corn grows easily in the Midwestern climate, so "why would you want to grow corn on irrigated land in the Central Valley?" For example, Jude Becker grows the organic corn that becomes feed for his pigs in Dyersville, Iowa, something that would be prohibitively expensive and environmentally irresponsible to do in California. Some argue that pigs will eat anything, so why ship grain to feed them? "Pigs are very adaptable animals, but you won't produce very much pork by feeding them table scraps," says Willis, arguing that meat quality will also suffer from an inconsistent diet.
Lastly, the drastic shortage of slaughterhouses and processing plants in California (see next point) means that the pigs have to travel further, usually in diesel trucks, to get harvested.
...can make use of the efficiencies of a strong infrastructure. For Bill Niman, Midwestern pork is "about so much more than just where the grain is. A complex web of specialized industries in the Midwest ensures that every part of the pig gets used." That web ranges from fat renderers to pet food manufacturers, and those who collect hides to send to Asia to be processed into leather. The manure goes to cropland.
Whereas "the pig industry in California is so small that many of the by-products go to waste," argues Niman. That Midwestern infrastructure helps lower prices, and "consumers are willing to pay premiums for things raised the right way, but not for inefficiencies from farm to table." For example, the average cost of slaughter in the Midwest hovers around $15 per animal, whereas in California it can be almost three or four times that.
...boasts superior taste and texture. As a cook, I am primarily interested in taste-I want everything I make to be as delicious as possible. At Eccolo, we regularly buy locally raised pork, but we're often disappointed with the texture of the meat, which tends to be either tough or mushy as a result of the pigs' inconsistent diet.
Says Eckhouse, "Corn and soybeans are our ‘terroir.' You hear all about the pigs raised for prosciutto di Parma being fed whey from the nearby Parmigiano-Reggiano dairies, but whey-fed pigs are too lean. In fact, INCA, which sets guidelines for making traditional foods in Italy, recommends a diet consisting primarily of corn and soy for prosciutto pigs, supplemented with a minimal amount of whey."
Even Cal Peternell, co-chef of ¬locavore-ethos early-adopter Chez Panisse Café, admits, "Jude Becker's pork is the best I've ever tasted."
...offers greater animal welfare and safety. Pig farming is a way of life in the Midwest. As Iowa hog farmer Ken Kehrli says, "We've got multigenerational farmers who intimately understand the physical and nutritional needs of the pigs, and can give them the care they need to express the best attributes once their muscle becomes meat."
Kehrli adds that most, if not all, of the slaughterhouses he works with are large enough to have hired renowned animal welfare expert Temple Grandin to evaluate how the animals are held and slaughtered. Which, Niman points out, is important: "The big businesses have realized that the animal's temperament at the time of slaughter has a huge impact on meat quality. So they may not have taken these measures for altruistic reasons, but the end product is the same: the food is safe and wholesome for the public and they've reduced liability. The smaller, older processing plants, like what we have in California, just don't have the deep pockets to be able to address food safety and animal welfare in the same way."
...just makes more sense. California is mostly grassland, so grazing animals such as cattle, sheep and goats are the most sustainable local choices.
"The idea of raising pork here on any kind of scale is not something that I would advocate," says Niman. "If you could somehow justify shipping grain to California, it should be fed to chickens, because a pound of grain translates into a pound of live chicken."
Or, says Peternell, we could take a different approach: "The truth is, people just need to get used to eating less meat. Not so long ago, rural families would harvest one pig in the winter and live off that meat for the entire year. It's completely possible."
A granddaughter of Iranian citrus farmers, Samin Nosrat spends much of her time as sous chef at Eccolo Restaurant in Berkeley connecting with farmers, ranchers and traditional food-makers. She is also a freelance writer passionate about telling the stories of these people who are behind our food. Her blog, Ciao Samin, can be found at http://ciaosamin.blogspot.com.
First published in the Winter 2009 Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2009 Edible San Francisco. Republished with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced without the written consent of the author or publisher.