It's been five years now since the American Berkshire Association (ABA) started helping Japanese consumers put specially trademarked American Berkshire Gold (ABG) pork into their shopping baskets.

Farmland Foods helped the ABA with initial development of the Japanese niche market. The packer and the association worked to capitalize on Japanese consumer preferences for the dark color, firmness and eating qualities of Berkshire pork.

The ABG program got its start when a Japanese customer approached Farmland Foods looking for Berkshire meat. Farmland Foods first tried a pilot program featuring ABG pork in February 1993. The Japanese have long been willing to pay a premium at the supermarket for quality pork.U.S. producers who are marketing pigs for the ABG program receive a $2-$3/cwt. premium (liveweight basis) over the base price for both purebred and F1 Berkshire crosses.

The ABG program has been growing steadily, breathing new life into demand for Berkshires. Three U.S. packers, Farmland, IBP and John Morrell, are now participating in the ABG program, in addition to Sanoma Corporation, a packer/processing company.

Steady Growth Mike Killingsworth, executive director of the American Berkshire Association's Berkshire Gold program, says ABA records show the program grew from approximately 200 pigs slaughtered biweekly as part of the ABG program in 1994 to 4,000 pigs slaughtered/week during the latter half of 1997.

"The annual number of Berkshire market hogs slaughtered for the American Berkshire Gold program grew from 88,000 animals in 1996 to 154,000 in 1997," Killingsworth relates. Although there are some larger herds, he estimates the average Berkshire producer operates a 60-sow herd.

Greg Innerst, Red Lion, PA, is president of the ABA. He says the ABG program has helped him sell more breeding stock, as demand for Berkshires increases. "Promoting a branded pork product has been a new experience for the association," Innerst explains. "It has been a learning process for us. The meat quality has really helped drive the demand."

A trademark was designed and registered to represent the ABG program. According to Killingsworth, a meat product cannot carry the trademark unless the animal is at least 50% Berkshire. Producers need a copy of the official ABA pedigree certifying that at least one parent was a registered, purebred Berkshire. The pedigree is evidence of the Berkshire ancestry. The gene for the black color does not dominate when Berkshires are crossed with white breeds.

Meat Quality Traits The ABG meat product must also have a standardized National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) marbling score of 2 (on a scale of 1 to 5) and a meat color score of 3 or 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5).

The eating qualities that make Berkshire meat so attractive to the Japanese have been documented by U.S. research. The breed received an added boost in 1995 when the NPPC published the results of National Genetic Evaluation Program (NGEP). Berkshires dominated the meat and eating quality tests of the NGEP, showing the highest loin ultimate pH (indicating good water-holding capacity and suggesting a moister product after cooking). The breed also rated at or near the top in color, visual marbling score, firmness and tenderness.

According to Shane Ward, Farmland Foods manager of international marketing and development for Asia, South America and the Caribbean, Farmland Foods has been instrumental in helping Berkshire producers fine-tune product quality. "We worked with producers to improve the consistency of the genetics that were being used," Ward says. "The whole carcass is cut differently for this type of market. Meat quality is crucial when dealing with the Japanese market."

Setting Selection Criteria The selection criteria for producers who can participate in the ABG program are quite strict. Ward says Farmland Foods won't accept Berkshire hogs weighing less than 230 lb. for this program. The packer requires participating Berkshire producers to market their hogs on a grade and yield basis. This has encouraged a more consistent product, Ward explains. The ABG program hogs processed by Farmland all go to a plant in Crete, NE.

Berkshire carcasses have to be segregated at the packing plant with special kill and processing times. Berkshires are killed on Wednesdays and Thursdays by the Farmland Foods plant, for example. Ward says Farmland Foods prefers to work with producers within a 100-mile radius of that plant.

Killingsworth says the ABA is considering a whole-herd certification program for ABG producers. Pork Quality Assurance Level III certification will be required. Killingsworth says ABG producers may also need to have herds that are certified as free of the stress gene.

The recent economic crisis in Asia has had a slight impact on the ABG program, but both Ward and Killingsworth say demand for U.S. Berkshire meat is still good in Japan. Killingsworth expects continued program growth. "All of the packer/processors the ABA has been working with have been optimistic about the program and the global possibilities," he says. "We are finalizing plans now for the ABG program to branch off into a domestic market niche as well."

Both Killingsworth and Innerst agree U.S. pork producers are competing in a global market. "Producers have to seize the opportunity to provide targeted consumers with the right product," Killingsworth says.