Does the pork industry miss the point via @CalgaryHerald article today? – Deadly pig virus spurs Alberta Pork to organize farmer meetings

My friend Greg Spragg of Spragg's Meats - I call him the Pig Whisperer - he is kind & will only raise pastured, hormone and antibiotic free pigs
My friend Greg Spragg of Spragg’s Meats – I call him the Pig Whisperer – he is kind & will only raise pastured, hormone and antibiotic free pigs

Deadly pig virus spurs Alberta Pork to organize farmer meetings.

The United States has an epidemic of porcine diarrhea that has killed approximately three million piglets and cost that country $240 million dollars. I just finished reading this news in the article above by Amanda Stephenson. Stephenson’s piece also reports that Ontario has just seen its first outbreak of the virus and a spokesperson for Alberta Pork says that “the real question is, can we keep it out of the Prairies?”.

I think that question misses the point. I think the real question is not “can we keep it out of the Prairies?”; I think the real question is why did these animals get so devastatingly ill in the first place?

I suspect it has something to do with the industrialization of the hog industry but I’m not a farmer or a veterinarian. This crisis is just one more factor that has me and many consumers asking questions and wishing for greater transparency in our food systems. This post describes what I know about the current systems of how pork is raised and goes on to look at some small trends and ideas that might lead the way back to a healthier pork industry with hopefully healthier animals within that industry.

Chef Duncan Ly's Pork Spring Rolls made with Spragg's pork photo - Karen Anderson
Chef Duncan Ly’s Pork Spring Rolls made with Spragg’s pork
photo – Karen Anderson

My understanding of how pigs in a farrow-to-finish (birth to weaning) barn live is as follows:
– a sow is confined to a pen with feed, water and a grated floor for her and her piglet’s feces and urine to fall through. Her piglets are confined to life there until they can be weaned
– at about 8 weeks the piglets are moved to a new barn or a new farm and assigned to bigger pens but in groups of 10 or more per pen
– the piglets have their tails docked so that they don’t chew each others off in boredom
– the barns have poor air quality, are cramped and these amazingly bright animals never see the light of day; they never get to use their keen snouts to forage for the omnivorous diet they would have if raised in pastures and forests
– a typical hog barn will have anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 animals and the slew of sewage that flows from the subfloor collection cesspool smells so bad it causes devastating air, water and land pollution.

No one wants to live near an industrialized pig farm.

The pork industry is blaming truckers for the spread of this porcine diarrhea epidemic. But one can’t help but wonder if industrialized animal husbandry practices play a role as well. Epidemics spread much more easily in confined and crowded spaces.

Consumers who’ve examined the practices of the industrialized pork industry are starting to demand humanely raised and pasture-raised pork. Calgary Coop have had a hard look at where the consumer’s dollar is going and have stated they will phase their purchasing power over to pork producers using non-confinement methods. This seems to be proof that grocery stores will follow consumers spending habits in a bid to keep consumers buying pork at their outlets.

How did the Alberta pork industry react to Calgary Coop’s announcement? I’ve written about that here. Basically, they warned it will be costly.

Sometimes you have to spend money to save your industry. Sometimes you have to spend more money to be humane. I am saddened that the pork producers are bearing the weight of blame for this poor system that’s been created. I think consumers are going to have to realize the need for higher pork prices if this industry is going to be viable.

There are only 350 pork farmers in Alberta. The industry has lost half their ranks in the last 5 years because pork farmers can’t make a living raising hogs – even using such industrialized and efficient methods – while selling their product for the low, low prices set by the market. The market…what and/or who is the market?

To market, to market to buy a fat pig
Home again, home again, jigetty-jig.

Home again – the matter of low pork prices might actually hit quite close to home. Maybe we consumers will have to own up to the role we’ve played (consciously or unconsciously) in the creation of our industrialized food production system. We like cheap bacon. We like cheap bacon on our cheap burgers in our cheap fast food outlets. We don’t stop to think what all that cheap bacon and cheap food is really costing. We don’t see our selves as co-producers in the food system. We don’t own that we vote for the food system that we get with each dollar we spend.

Thankfully, now that we are starting to truly see that system, we are changing how we spend our dollars. Change will follow where our money leads as we’ve seen in Calgary Coop’s new pork buying policies. We can truly be part of the solution here.

The few Alberta pork producers that have bucked the system and are raising their animals humanely have invested hugely with time spent building their own direct markets. They are positioned to benefit now that consumers have caught up with what industry “norms” consist of. Their stalls at farmer’s markets around the province are busy. Their independent processing facilities are getting busier and bigger. We can all do our bit by supporting this new breed of producers. Expect to pay two to three times what you pay for conventionally raised pork but enjoy every bite a corresponding two or three times as much knowing you are supporting a potentially healthier system.

For the past three years I have helped City Palate magazine develop a festival called Pig and Pinot Festival here in Calgary. Pig and Pinot (held at Hotel Arts on or near the summer solstice each year) is about celebrating and promoting humanely raised pork in Alberta. Last year, the Alberta Pork Producers signed on as a sponsor of the festival. They had their bloggers there and offered lots of ideas of how to cook pork. Hopefully, the 350 attendees of the event begin to think about the source of their pork products. I know the ten fabulous chefs that compete for the festival’s Divine Swine trophy think about it. Calgary chefs have an amazing collective conscious when it comes to sourcing ethical food products.

If your interested in buying pork from humane and heritage breed pork producers, the farmers celebrated at City Palate’s Pig and Pinot Festival so far are as follows:

2011 – Broek Pork Acres, Nobleford, Alan and Joanne Vanden Broek

2012 – Spragg’s Meat Shop, Rosemary, Gregg and Bonnie Spragg

2013 – Irving’s Farm Fresh, Round Hill, Nicola and Alan Irving

The 2014 event will be announced shortly. A few other humane pork producers I know of are as follows:

Sunworks Farms, Almeda, Ron and Sheila Hamilton

TK Ranch, Spondin, Dylan and Colleen Biggs

First Nature Farms, Grand Prairie, Jerry Kitt

Sunterra Farms and the Price family of Acme, Alberta also claim to raise their animals humanely and have been successful – do-it-yourselfers – in creating a sustainable model in the pork industry in Alberta for decades. They opted out of selling to the traditional pork industry marketplace years ago and since 1990 have created their own production-to-market model. They control everything from raising their animals to processing to selling them at their own grocery markets. The Price family have nine stores selling their products across this province and have proven that a small business can ramp up to meet demands of consumers for superior products.

I hope this post has helped you sniff out a little more of the story of our pork industry here in North America and at home in Alberta. I hope you will be encouraged to seek out the pork products I’ve listed above. Voting with your dollars for more humane industry standards in the pork industry and across the board in agriculture will make a change for the better.

Humane practices help me savour my food, they help me sleep better at night and consequently, they help me savour it all.

Please let me know if you have any other humane and heritage breed pork producers I can add to my list. I’d love to see this list grow. I’d love to hear stories of healthy animals and a healthy industry to replace the one that led me to write this post. It may not be the answer to the current porcine epidemic of diarrhea but in the long term, it has got to help ensure there is a pork industry at all.

Alberta pork producers Greg and Bonnie Spragg were featured on the PBS show Off The Beaten Palate and are seen here with host Michael-Ann Rowe (centre) photo - Karen Anderson
Alberta pork producers Greg and Bonnie Spragg were featured on the PBS show Off The Beaten Palate and are seen here with host Michael-Ann Rowe (centre)
photo – Karen Anderson


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