Thursday, March 15, 2007

National Pork Industry Forum

Two weeks ago (March 1-3, 2007) I attended the National Pork Industry Forum, the annual business meeting of American pork producers, as it was held nearby at the Anaheim Hilton. Pork Act Delegates are producers or importers that are nominated by their state associations then appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. 154 producers and 8 importers were appointed for 2006; these delegates, representing the 70,000 U.S. pork producers, in turn make nominations for the National Pork Board, make decisions about the Pork Checkoff program, and adopt resolutions that provide direction to the National Pork Board. As you might imagine, the meeting looked like one of Congress, with delegates apportioned by states depending upon the amount of checkoff dollars collected from the state they represent. The biggest delegation came from Iowa, for example, which produces more pork than any other state.

I found the meeting incredibly interesting. It began with a series of presentations to the producers about the industry's failure to defeat Proposition 204 in Arizona and the rise of public concern about corporate responsibility (or, more exactly, the perception of a lack thereof) in agriculture. Much discussion took place around the question of sow housing in the wake of Smithfield's decision to phase out its use of gestation crates, as there were presentations about various European models and an experiment with group sow housing at one large production facility in the U.S. While there were other industry issues addressed, especially the question of corn prices with the recent push for more ethanol production, animal welfare issues were at the fore. Friday's presentations centered around the meeting's theme: "Accountability, Trust, and Social Responsibility: Defining Pork Production in the 21st Century." To make a long series of provocative presentations and discussions short, the delegates ultimately decided to encourage all producers to participate in PQA Plus, a certification program that includes an animal well-being component. You can find information about PQA Plus here via the National Pork Board site.

As part of the discussions about the breakdown in trust between the industry and its customers, Steve Murphy, CEO of the National Pork Board, noted that the industry traditionally falls back to scientific rationales when customers express concern about whether they are doing the right thing. By the end of the weekend's deliberations, 87% of the delegates supported the addition of "doing the right thing" to their science-based standards for animal welfare. While the main showpiece of the meeting was the approval of PQA Plus, there were some other resolutions adopted, including a call for more research on porcine circovirus and feed costs and swine diets, and support for the pork racing program.

I met some great people and learned a lot at the National Pork Industry Forum. I left feeling sympathetic towards today's pork producers, who are increasingly caught between a popular fantasy that pigs are raised on a slightly larger yet still idyllic version of Old McDonald's farm and the modern reality of intensive, confinement-based production systems. The NPB is doing a lot of work to convince the public of producers' concern for their animals--an interest in their pigs' well-being that is quite genuine, by the way--but the public is increasingly demanding a different version of the human-pig relationship. All you need to do is refer to yesterday's post about the op-ed in the New York Times, where Nicolette Niman notes that more and more Americans want livestock to be treated in ways similar to their dogs and cats. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that these broader changes in Americans' ideas about their companion animals will increasingly cause problems for the meat industry.

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