Sustainable Pork Smackdown, Pt. 1: Why Bay Area residents should choose Midwestern pork

By Samin Nosrat | Illustration by Marcos Sorenson

Read Pt. 2: Why Bay Area residents should choose local pork

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."

Who's oinking

Read Pt. 2: Why Bay Area residents should choose local pork

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.

15 Responsesto “Sustainable Pork Smackdown, Pt. 1: Why Bay Area residents should choose Midwestern pork”

  1. Jay Porter says:

    I love family-raised heritage-breed pork from the Midwest (and from everywhere else!), and our restaurant buys a fair amount of it (along with California pork). I also agree it makes more sense to ship finished meat rather than feed from Iowa to California.
    However, the Midwestern pork argument takes for granted that American grain farming is the sole provenance of the Midwest. In fact, California has a long history of farming myriad grains -- without irrigation -- dating back to pre-Colombian days. See http://thelinkery.com/blog/farms-in-jacumba/ for a brief post on that. We just need more people to undertake the traditional growing of grain here -- for multiple reasons.
    Similarly, it's clear that pigs can thrive on diets other than corn and soy. We haven't yet bought pork from Jude Becker, but we have bought superlative pork from numerous farmers including Eliza MacLean (Crossabaw breed, barley-finished, North Carolina) and Barney Bahrenfuse (Berkshire breed, multiple-grain-finished, Iowa).
    Pork on!

  2. Sam Spade says:

    Let's get this straight.  You're saying you support local food systems, but you think it's a good idea to eat pork from the midwest grown on Iowa corn?  What other corners do you think it is a good idea to cut?

    The pork I eat is raised on pasture in the mountains of vermont.  You don't have to feed grain to pigs to get meat.  Sure, the pigs I eat have less fat and marbling, but they are more meat. And they are very tasty.  The guy telling you that a pig has to eat grain to produce meat is sliding you a slippery self serving truthiness.  You should do more research and see if there aren't other opinions out there.

    If your environment doesn't support pork, well maybe you shouldn't eat pork.  Or maybe you should move somewhere that does.  If the climate and land of California cannot support the population there without tremendous imports of food, power and water, well then maybe that population needs to migrate to an environment that is more hospitable to human habitation...

    The basic argument given is lets concentrate resources and industries to trim costs and gain efficiencies producing pigs.  Around here we have a word for that, it's called a CAFO.  The fact that a CAFO is run by a family does not make it anymore evironmentally friendly.  rather than looking for reasons to embrace global industrial agriculture think about looking for solutions to problems encountered in your own personal local food network.

  3. Jed "the country bumpkin" says:

    I agree with Sam's points above, there is no need to stuff pigs full of grain in the Midwest and ship it out to California.  We can raise pigs quite nicely on a variety of foods available here, including acorns, pasture, scrap farmers' market veggies, locally-grown winter grains (like barley, winter wheat, etc. that are grown with the rain), clabbered milk from our local dairies, etc.
    If your argument for the fuel usage is based on shipping grain on semi-trucks from the Midwest, than your argument is flawed.  It comes in on railcar, which is more fuel efficient than sending reefer trucks of packaged pork from Iowa.
    Additionally, a lot of grains are actually grown in the West, such as Montana wheat and corn, California barley & winter wheat, and legumes from Idaho and Eastern Washington.
    The chefs argument above makes it sound like they are either too cheap or too lazy to source out good pork from around here, they would rather get boxes of cheap pork from Iowa.  But just because chefs and restaurants are too lazy (or cheap ) is not a good argument to tell consumers not to support local pork production.
    Oh yeah- it's good to point out that Niman Ranch is basically bankrupt and selling out right now because the business has NEVER been profitable (not to mention those farmers who sold to Niman made pennies and were never given contracts).
    Oh yeah- one other thing.  One pound of grain does not equal one pound of live chicken.  It takes a MINIMUM of 2 pounds under the best conditions to produce a pound of live chicken.  Pigs have always been one of the best foraging and feed converting animals on the planet- that is why they are still the #1 consumed source of flesh.  They should be fed with high-quality waste and not just primo grains.  A diverse, varied diet high in plant materials and green, growing vegetation (not dried grains) will always produce a superior tasting product- that is why pasture-raised meats win taste tests around the world.

  4.    There is a fundamental flaw in your argument: a pig doesn’t have to eat grain. We raise pigs. We have about 200 pigs at any one time on our farm here in the mountains of Vermont. We have a breeding herd of 40 sows plus the boars. We don’t feed grain. 90% of our pigs’ diet consists of pasture in the warm seasons and hay in the winter when the snows bury the land. About 7% consists of cow and goats milk whey left over from making butter and cheese at a small cheese maker just over the mountain from us. They get their milk from pastured cows and goats. This means that even if you go back to the source of the whey there still isn’t much in the way of grain in our pigs’ diet. The remaining ~3% of our pigs’ diet consists of apples, pumpkins, beets, turnips and other good things, much of which we grow here on our farm.
       The assertion that pigs must eat grain is false. This is the basic premise of your argument thus your argument is false. Our pigs have a far smaller carbon foot print than mid-western pigs, even before any shipping occurs. The shipping of the mid-western pork just furthers the situation in our favor, all without our using any synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides like are widely used to grow corn and soybeans - two of the heavily GMOed and petroleum subsidized crops in existence.
       Then there is the whole confinement problem with virtually all of the mid-western pork you’re cheering for. True free ranging pastured pigs are more humanely raised than those that are raised in crates, stalls, pens or the dry lots often labeled ‘outdoors’. Where would you rather be? In a little apartment and work cubical or free to roam lush pastures and woods?
       Additionally, pastured pigs, since they’re walking around outdoors in the fresh air, get more exercise which results in superior quality meat because it is more blood flow making for better quality, texture, color and flavor in the meat.
       Next there is the superior quality of our pastured whey fed pork. Eating pasture and hay plus dairy gives the pigs a complete diet and the meat a better flavor and texture - we sell to white table cloth restaurants and the chefs rave about this with our pork. Corn and soybeans make for a bland meat.
       There is another issue. Why are you supporting the transportation industry? The petroleum industry that drives the shipping, the fossil fuel based fertilizers, the pesticides and herbicides to grow all that corn and soy? Why support the totalitarian middle-eastern countries supplying all that petroleum? There is another option: When you buy locally your dollars go back into your local economy and that’s far better than wasting them on transcontinental shipping from far away states. Unless the distant provider provides something truly unique, put your dollars into your neighbors’ pockets.
        I’m not going to sell to you, you’re too far away. We’re in Vermont. We don’t supply your area. We only sell locally. But surely you are able to find local sources of pastured pork that is not grain fed, fits your ethics and will give you superior flavor.
       Frankly, this article of yours reads like a press release based on the statements of a few marketers and the National Pork Board. Please get informed about real pastured pork for your fork. It’s just not another white meat and it’s not grain based.
    Cheers
    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    (I just realized why my comment hadn’t posted before - probably the link in my sig.)

  5. Michael says:

    The problem that most of these comments share is that their authors are not chefs.   If they were, they would know the monumental taste difference between grain-fed pork and other types. These are hardly comparable products. Also, just because you can raise pigs without grain doesn't mean that it is the most efficient way to do it...I think that was, in fact, the author's point. Raising pigs in your backyard is one thing. Feel free to feed them all the scraps and grass you want. But now imagine doing that on 1000 times the scale. That's A LOT of grass and scraps...perhaps it's more efficient and, indeed environmentally friendly, to dive them some grain. And raise them in Iowa.

  6. Actually, Michael, on our farm we do do about 1,000 times that volume, on pasture. It's very doable and without grain. Not only that but the quality of our non-grain fed pork is superior - just ask our customers which range from NECI to chefs at white table cloth restaurants to health food stores to individual families. They can't get enough of our pastured pork.

  7. Lapizero says:

    All of this rhetoric is coming to an abrupt end when the great depression shows its face at your doorsteps. Then I will see where will you bring the money to spend for all these ideas.

  8. Lapizero, can you translate that? I didn't get any meaning other than disagreement but it isn't clear what you're disagreeing with.

  9. Lapizero says:

    People are dying from hunger around the world and some of you are concerned about the origin of your fancy overpriced food? You will understand soon. Just wait one more year my child.

  10. Oh, I understand stand that already. However, what you need to realize is there is no shortage of food or need for people dying of hunger. There is plenty of food. The problem is politics, greed and corruption in the countries by warlords who stop the food from getting to the people. It is appauling the amount of food that sits rotting on ships and docks due to this greed of the 'leaders' of the people. They are using hunger to tighten their grip.

    I would strongly suggest if you're going to take up a cause that you do some real research and actually understand the issues.

  11. Lapizero says:

    I strongly suggest that you have a little bit of realism with your next meal! Please don't ass-u-me that I  don't know the problems you have listed on your post.

  12. let me guess lapizero is 14 years old female and from the valley and she has never gone without food in her life involunterily but she has bouts of sympathetic eating disorders and wears a different slogan tshirt every day

  13. Bonnie P. says:

    The Ethicurean's hall monitor says: No personal attacks, please. If you can't make your case with ideas… well, try again.

  14. KGM says:

    2/18/09

    As a partner with Jude Becker, I find all of heat about Becker Lane Organic largely based upon ignorance about what we are doing.  There are rules and laws defining the raising of organic pork, for which we are setting the national standards.  Beside feeding our pigs grains, they eat other types of food and are pasture raised. In the pasture, they can and do eat all kinds of goodies including worms and insects. In addition, they actually both walk and run. All of these activities improve the meat's quality and taste. We sell our pork to people who desire it. Some live here in Iowa and some live as far away as the Far East. Where our pork goes depends solely upon who orders it from us. Concerning the taste, all I can suggest that you do is obtain some of our pork and taste it yourself. By doing so, you will discover what many leading American chefs are terming "The Magic Pork."

  15. samin says:

    At first, I was upset about all of the uproar here, and started to take it personally.  Then I remembered why I wanted to write this piece: to get people to start thinking beyond the parameters of what is currently accepted as the "right" choice.  This issue is so much more complicated than a simple slogan, and there are many right answers to the question of what to eat. 

    By advocating for Midwestern pork, I am not against supporting local pork farmers.  It's not black or white, and the choice doesn't have to be between one or the other.  Even I really appreciated (and was swayed by) Bonnie's argument.

    I also feel the need to clarify that none of the farmers I wrote about are CAFOs or scary industrial operations.  These are farms that are setting the standards for animal welfare, guidelines for organic pork farming, and abiding by the strictest of environmental regulations. 

    In response to those who said maybe we shouldn't be eating pork in California--well, I frankly don't think that the whole state is just going to go for that.  But just like Cal said in the piece, I do think that we can try to eat less meat, and that we should. 
    And because I try to have a well-rounded historical and cultural view of food, farming and foodmaking techniques, I think that we need to be a little less dogmatic about things like what it means to support local food systems.  Sometimes, those food systems might not be our own; for instance, I really like to eat and cook with specialty ingredients like red cow Parmesan cheese and aged balsamic vinegar.  The most delicious and traditionally produced versions of these foods come from Emilia-Romagna in Italy--am I going to sacrifice flavor, thousands of years of tradition, and supporting a food system that maximizes efficiency in production by using byproducts (such as whey) to make other foods (such as ricotta cheese or feed for prosciutto pigs) by buying locally made "Parmesan" or "balsamic" vinegar?  No!  Do you expect me to use that stuff they call parmesan from Wisconsin because it's closer?  Blech! 

    But I have visited the dairy where the parmesan I buy is made, and I do know what goes on there, and what they do every step of the way to ensure that quality and tradition are honored.  People are doing the "right" thing all over the world, and it's our job to support them as well.  I feel as if I have made a good, educated choice about what to eat.  That's all I ask other people to do.