July 15, 2024

Extension Notebook: Factors around the world driving the direction of pig production

From different locations around the globe, pork production is driven by evolving input from both the public and the retail food sector. In many cases, consumer pork preferences reflect their desire for a product that conforms to a standard they value.

In unique scenarios in various countries, specified genotypes are raised to produce pork with high levels of intramuscular fat and unique flavors. These high-quality products are very desirable, and as such are more expensive and produced in limited quantities.

In different countries, animal welfare regulations are initiated by public opinion, to have a major impact on the methods and conditions under which pigs are raised. Some requirements may mandate changes to the type of housing, space allotted per animal, social interaction, environmental enrichment and freedom from pain. While these changes are mostly restricted to Europe, a few have been legislated within certain states in the U.S. Yet in these scenarios, while the costs of production inevitably become higher, there has not been a consistent increase in the price of pork and the amount purchased by consumers.

Of some concern is where welfare requirement proposals become uncertain, as with those that mention production conditions which provide for animal happiness, hope and contentment. Yet other areas of consumer demand, appear more tangible and involve the public’s focus on pork and human health. In this context, concerns have arisen about the use of antibiotics, hormones, drugs, and chemicals for livestock produced for food. In this case, the issue is primarily focused on the potential for drug and chemical residues in pork and their effects on human health.

These concerns are valid but have been approved when federal regulations are followed. The procedures for use of these substances in pigs follow published guidelines and directives that instruct pork producers on how these should be used to prevent residue in pork. In addition, testing at processing plants helps to confirm pork is safe and helps identify any possible risks.

Nevertheless, some consumers value pork products labeled as “no antibiotics used”, or “all natural or organically produced”. The meaning of these labels may need to conform to certain criteria, and may require verification by processors or retailers. However, the meaning behind the labels can also be somewhat vague, as antibiotic free may mean the animals never became ill, or if they became ill, were not treated with antibiotics, or if they became sick and treated, are not included in this product.

In the case of all natural or organic, the label could have a variety of meanings, but suggest all items that go in or on the animal cannot include certain types of products. In the case of organic and antibiotic free production, a much higher level of management is needed to prevent disease and need for treatment. In both cases, productivity is often lower, and so product price is typically higher for organic. On the other hand, antibiotic-free products may not necessarily receive a higher price but can be used by production companies for marketing to consumers.

So, while some preferences involve consumer willingness to pay higher prices at the store, the changes that the majority of pork producers need to implement will not increase the price they receive for their pigs. In addition, what is interesting is that pork specifically labeled to meet consumer demand, but at a higher price, often results in most consumers purchasing the less expensive product.

It is important to mention that while some of the changes required in pork production systems seem reasonable and beneficial to animal welfare, there is often little consideration given to the costs that producers incur and their ability to remain profitable in business. The ability of producers to meet product specifications is a great opportunity to serve consumer demand. And in these cases, it seems only fair that the producers should be compensated for the higher cost of production.

Robert Knox is a University of Illinois Extension swine specialist.