041221 How Pig Farmers Are Putting the Flavor Back Into Pork

December 5, 2004

Miami, FL - Pushed by restaurant chefs, who say even high-grade pork needs work, and by consumers who remember the full, meaty flavor of pork chops at family suppers, a new ideal is emerging. Wisps of clouds streak the wide blue Iowa sky along Interstate 35. Long, low silvery buildings stretch across fields on either side of the highway. There's no sound, no glimpse of movement or activity on this chilly fall morning. The buildings could be airplane hangars or machine sheds. But they're not. Instead each holds hundreds of pigs living their lives indoors, barely moving and out of sight of the rural land all around them. Eventually, the meat from these hogs will be sold to supermarkets across America.

A few miles north, in a modest brick farmhouse, is the Niman Ranch Pork headquarters. Behind it are a brick silo and Paul Willis's pigs. These sows, with their broods of offspring, roam grassy fields or poke their heads out of miniature straw-filled Quonset huts. We walk, carefully stepping over low wires that separate the pastures, and the sows and piglets come right up to us. ''They want to smell, investigate, see who you are,'' says Willis, an engaging, sandy-haired man in his 50s who has been raising pigs since he came back to the family farm in the 1970s and ``bought a sow, and the farmer threw the pigs in for free.'' Willis's plump animals live outside and move to barns when hard winter sets in. These naturally raised pigs lead the barnyard life of yesteryear -- eating corn, munching on grass, socializing. ''This whole system is about who pigs are,'' says Willis. Though he and farmers in other states who sell pork through Niman Ranch agree to raise pigs in a humane way -- without confinement or antibiotics, on natural feeds, and on sustainable family farms -- the point is not only the well being of the animals. It's also flavor, Willis emphasizes.

Pork with flavor is making a comeback. Pushed by restaurant chefs who for years complained that even the high-grade pork they bought had to be brined in a salt-water solution to make it palatable and moist, and by consumers who remembered the full, meaty flavor and almost creamy texture of pork chops at family suppers, a new ideal is emerging.

Americans are all for efficiency of scale. ''Bigger makes better'' went the philosophy of the mid-20th century. Even food production was pushed into the assembly-line model. In the case of the pig, this meant more meat and a less expensive system; keeping many animals in hangarlike buildings instead of outdoors was a cost-efficient way to increase production.

''You're trying to produce pork at the lowest cost possible,'' says John Mabry, director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State University, ''and still have an acceptable product.'' It's cheaper to feed leaner pork, he adds, and therefore the price of commercial pork at the supermarket can be lower. John Lawrence, livestock economist at Iowa State, agrees, saying that 50 to 52 pounds of pork per person are consumed annually in American homes, and compared to beef and poultry, the commercial product is ''affordable.'' But the system has sacrificed taste. Pork went from being fatty to becoming extremely lean (the ''other white meat'' ad campaign was intended to counteract the popularity of chicken). As far back as 1977, James Beard wrote in his book Theory & Practice of Good Cooking that lean pork was less flavorful and that he hoped the ''streamlined'' pork would soon fall out of fashion.

More than 20 years later, Beard's notion has finally found supporters. John Dewar, who sells fine meats to chefs and in retail shops in Newton and Wellesley, thinks the pendulum has swung. ''Pork in earlier years was too fatty and greasy,'' Dewar says. ''Producers tried to counter by growing a slimmer pig, and, by god, they did.'' The result was dry and tasteless. ''The quick fix,'' he adds, ''was to inject the lean product with a solution to put some moisture into it.'' Although that might work at a retail level, he says, restaurant chefs weren't satisfied.

Dewar calls Willis one of the pioneers in changing pork. Now, says Dewar, restaurateurs ask for pork by name and pay a premium. Natural pork products cost more than commercial pork, but, Dewar says, ``We're not getting resistance on the price.''

Many chefs say the cost is offset by the taste. Bob Sargent, chef and owner of Flora in Arlington, Mass., who buys pork from Dewar, serves Niman and other brands such as Pipestone. ''You can really taste the difference,'' Sargent says. Rodney Murillo, chef at Davio's in Boston's Park Square, agrees. ''We look for tenderness in the pork, and flavor, of course,'' Murillo says. Two years ago, when a purveyor suggested Niman pork, he and the other Davio's chefs tasted several brands. ''I'm telling you, when we cooked (natural) pork chops and compared it to everything else,'' he says, the difference was obvious.

''We're paying $3 to $4 more a pound than regular pork,'' says Murillo, whose customers are drawn to the double chops, which they sometimes mistake for veal chops. ''We get nothing but compliments every night.'' Customers also seem to appreciate the more humane way the pigs are raised, he says.

While Davio's diners may be willing to pay $33 for a double chop cut from the center of the loin and served with sweet potato fries and onion jam, what about home cooks? Butcher Michael Sovie of Crosby Market in Marblehead, Mass., says Prairie Grove natural pork tenderloin sells well. The Illinois company raises pork indoors, but without antibiotics.

In Iowa, where pigs outnumber people, and other agricultural states, says Willis, farmers long viewed large-scale pig operations as more efficient. Pigs were turned ''into a commodity,'' says Willis, and the confinement model -- in which animals are raised on concrete above manure pits, leaving only to go to the processing plant -- produces lean pigs. But that leaves them vulnerable to cold, the main reason pigs raised in open air put on a layer of muscular fat over their backs. ''Leaner hogs are easily stressed, hyper at any moving or handling,'' he says. The stress hurts more than the animals' psyche, says Willis, ''releasing lactic acid that breaks down muscle structure.'' It ''results in dry, tasteless'' meat, he says.

Farmers in 11 states raise pigs for the California-based Niman company. Others who raise free-range pork -- including Berkshire pigs in Iowa, western Massachusetts, and elsewhere and pork sold by Canada's du Breton Farms -- are also going back to an earlier ideal.

A pig is by nature one of the most adaptable of farm animals. For centuries, pigs ate almost any scrap they were fed and provided the farmer a range of cuts that could be smoked and stored for winter: hams, sausages, and bacon. Rural Americans used every bit of the pig, and every farm raised some. In 2003, 100.9 million pigs were processed in the United States, according to the Pork Board, a trade association. Although there is no data on how many natural or ''niche'' producers there are, says spokeswoman Ceci Snyder of the association, which is headquartered in Des Moines, it's a small but growing segment. ``There's a lot of interest.''

Willis says that one to two farmers a week are joining Niman, which sells 2,500 to 3,000 pigs a week. Many were small farmers squeezed out of the market by large companies such as Smithfield Farms, which ''owns everything,'' says Willis -- the processing plants as well as the pigs. When they contract with farmers to raise pigs in confinement, he adds, ``You're a pig janitor, that's what you are.''

Willis calls his pigs ''a farmer's hybrid,'' some spotted black, some pink, some a coppery brown. On this fall day, they mill around the feeding troughs like guests at a cocktail party. They will go to market at six to seven months old. Willis sees raising pigs this way as extending a tradition of thousands of years of being connected to farm animals.

Consumers, he believes, want to know where their food comes from. If it tastes better, that's an added bonus.


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