For fans of the popular CSI television show and its various clones, I want to make it crystal clear that my use of the CSI acronym in no way implies that a “crime scene investigation” is needed in the pork industry.
Rather, my use of CSI stands for “comprehensive swine identification.” The technology for such a CSI program is available and it is time we capture its potential. Like investigators at a crime scene, it is possible to convict or clear a suspect through DNA analysis.
If you're not up on your chemical definitions, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, and it refers to the chemical material that forms a gene. One gene contains about 20,000 bits of DNA information. To date, roughly 1,000 genes are contained in the growing pig genome map. The potential for extracting the most intricate identification information about an animal from a piece of hair or skin or a drop of blood is mind-boggling.
It is precisely that type of forensic sleuthing and tracking potential that is soon to find its way into Canada's pork industry. The system's developer and country's largest pork packer, Maple Leaf Foods, has a goal of collecting a blood or hair sample from every replacement gilt placed in a Canadian breeding herd. The resultant database will allow any offspring to be traced back to their mother.
With this information, the Canadian pork industry will soon have the capability of tracking a slice of bacon back to the farm where the pig it came from was born.
The program, in my opinion, gets to the heart of what consumers really want — and it ain't COOL (country-of-origin labeling).
Here we are fussing about COOL while our Canadian neighbors are developing programs that will enable them to track a pork chop from a pig born on the Pigs-for-Profit Hog Farm in the province of Saskatchewan on a farm 50 miles northeast of Saskatoon, back to its mother.
Furthermore, they will know the pig's birth date, the rations it was fed, the building(s) it inhabited, and that it received an iron and a penicillin shot at 3 days old.
That much information might just be a little more pertinent to a picky consumer than a label reading “born, raised and processed in the USA.” Gee, I wonder who has the marketing advantage there?
COOL advocates would have you believe that consumers want the “born-raised-processed” assurances.
Think about your last buying experience at J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart or wherever you shop. Did you make a buying decision based on a label that reads: “Made in the USA?”
Take J.C. Penney's popular Stafford line of clothing, for example. You might see a shirt label that reads “made in Hong Kong, Honduras or Guatemala.” You might privately “wish” it were made in the USA, but when a buying decision is made, the real questions are — does it fit, do I like the color and fabric, and is the price fair and within my budget?
For most consumers, the same thought process applies to food. We look for color, nutrient value and other quality indicators. We are fully aware that much of the produce featured on our grocers' shelves is grown outside the U.S. Do we discriminate against it? Not usually. At least, you probably don't if you live in the frozen northland when, from December through March, fruits and vegetables grown anywhere are a welcome part of our diet.
I continue to believe that the zealots for country-of-origin labeling are kidding themselves. The misguided law is about to waste more of our tax dollars, not to mention the added cost to revenue-strapped producers and the possibility of losing key export markets. The cost to the meat industry in the first year is estimated at about $2.4 billion. The pork sector's tab alone is estimated at over $600 million.
That investment could be better spent on a comprehensive swine identification program that could be mutually beneficial to producers, distributors and consumers. Such a program could offer regulators and consumers reassurance that any problem in the pork chain could be pinpointed expeditiously. Another real benefit would be the ability to retrace a favorable pork-eating experience so that we could capitalize on genetics and production practices that present the best possible pork products to the domestic and global marketplace.
It's time to look beyond COOL. It's time to adopt the science that allows us to meet the persistent challenge of tracking the various pork cuts through processing, packaging, retail sales, the dinner plate and back again. Then, the “Made in USA” label would really mean something.