Independent pork producers formed a new-generation cooperative and gained certification from the state of Minnesota to market their pork.

Late last month, Kowalski's Markets, an upscale grocery store chain, opened new doors for Minnesota agriculture. The Twin Cities-based food retailer test launched the first pork products direct marketed by producers organized as Minnesota Certified Pork (MNCEP).

The promotional kickoff at a new Woodbury, MN, store is part of a pilot project entitled Minnesota Certified (MinnCERT). The program involves the members of MNCEP, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). Their joint goal is to coordinate delivery of high-quality, certified-safe pork products to consumers, says Thomas Blaha, DVM, past University of Minnesota Leman Chair.

Blaha, University of Minnesota Swine Center Director Jerry Shurson and pork producer David Starner, Hoffman, MN, co-developed the MinnCERT project. The groups formed an ISO 9000-like quality management and certification program for agricultural production practices. This is the first group in the U.S. to use such a certification program, says Starner, president of MNCEP.

“The overall goal of MinnCERT is to find a more secure future for us, where we aren't at the whims of the supply and the demand in the marketplace,” says Starner. A second goal is to help independent pork producers use customized quality standards to meet the needs of value-added food chains and certify the production practices.

In late January, the State of Minnesota certified five Minnesota farms in the producer cooperative. They include: Starner, John Vaubel, Mapleton; Larry Liepold, Okabena (Minnesota Pork Producers Association president); Jim Quackenbush, Chokio, MNCEP vice president, and David and Karen Richter, Montgomery.

Protocol Established

A 50-page manual lays out the standard operating procedures with which pork producers must comply. MNCEP members also provide a letter of guarantee stating they specifically complied with these eight points:

  • The hogs were born and raised in Minnesota.

  • No rendered animal byproducts were used that could pose a food safety risk.

  • A program is in place (coordinated by the University of Minnesota) to monitor and reduce the risk of salmonella contamination. University of Minnesota MNCEP auditor Julie Grass establishes a baseline of antibody prevalence in random samples from finishing pigs. She ensures producers use barn-specific boots, clean up feed spills, install bird netting and implement effective rodent control measures in and around buildings.

  • Trichinella-free production practices include no “garbage” feeding, wildlife-proof buildings, prompt removal of dead animals from pens, proper carcass disposal and rodent control.

  • Toxoplasma-free production practices call for use of barn-specific boots, rodent control and keeping all cats out of buildings and away from feed sources.

  • No use of antibiotic growth-promoters is allowed in the finishing rations; only therapeutic use is permitted.

    Animals are tagged if antibiotics are injected within the last 60 days before slaughter. Starner finishes hogs to 250 lb. He pulls antibiotics 90 days before marketing.

    Grass stresses no hogs are denied treatment just to stay antibiotic-free. If needed, they are treated, segregated and sold as commodity pork, she says.

  • The producer complies with high standards for protecting the environment and improving animal welfare. This includes adherence to proper stocking densities, cleanliness and meeting other environmental needs of the pigs. Treat or euthanize pigs promptly. Don't routinely mix grow-finish pigs and transport and handle pigs with care.

  • Follow needle-avoidance measures for injection, don't re-use bent needles, earmark pigs if a needle breaks and can't be retrieved, and store sharps properly in the appropriate container.

“About 90% of what is needed for this certification, we are already doing,” observes Starner. “The issue is consumers don't know the good production practices we are following unless we capitalize on that effort and tell our story.”

Starner and his brothers Mark and John run an 820-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, also serving as an F2 gilt multiplier for Genetiporc.

Auditing Process

The Starner farm and the four other farms in the MNCEP program are being audited monthly by the University of Minnesota. Annual inspections will be done by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.

To receive a letter of certification from the state, producers must supply a letter of guarantee and comply with all externally and internally audited procedures, says Blaha.

The five producers who will supply the market needs of Kowalski's will serve as a valuable learning tool for the MinnCERT program, he adds.

Many producers are on a waiting list to join the program. Blaha envisions they could be added as the state legislature provides additional funding for inspections and certification. Twin Cities-based grocer Cub Foods also has expressed an interest in joining the program.

In Starner's view, growth of the cooperative will depend on consumer demand. Producers won't be added until market expansion is realized, he says.

Product Traceback

In the MinnCERT program, segregation of hogs and resulting pork products will be strictly maintained at the Swift plant at Worthington, MN, where they will be custom-processed.

Strict segregation from farm to market will eventually mean products will be traceable to the farm of origin, says Paul Strandberg, MDA project coordinator.

And, by basically selling their pork products directly to retail suppliers, producers expect to achieve a premium, says Starner. “We feel we are coming into the marketplace with something that more affluent customers want. I truly believe we can establish a pricing mechanism for these products that should consistently provide us a profit,” he explains.

Plans are underway to develop a feature on the MDA Web site that will allow consumers to go to and, by clicking on the “Minnesota Certified” icon, they will see the names and telephone numbers of producers, detailed descriptions of the standards adopted by the five farms and the certification process.

MNCEP, the brainchild of Minnesota pork producers, is a template for many producer groups to meet many different market segments, Starner says. Talks about using the MinnCERT program have begun with hoop and pasture pork producers, buckwheat producers, beef heifer ranchers and crop farmers.

To contact MNCEP, call Starner at (320) 986-2607 or e-mail him at