Recent and ongoing events in our nation's Capitol are pushing pork producers toward more aligned production agreements — in the name of market differentiation and animal identification.

As these alignments flourish, integration will accelerate. The fallout, may hit independents hardest.

Here's the short list:

  • Late this summer, voluntary country-of-origin (COOL) labeling provisions were drafted into the new farm bill. Voluntary labeling requirements are anticipated before year's end.

  • In late October, the USDA announced their new label requirements for organic foods.

  • A national animal identification plan was approved during a late-October meeting of the U.S. Animal Health Association.

  • Ongoing pressure to curb antibiotic use in livestock diets continues to heat up.

  • Animal welfare guidelines are being written and an index to rate production systems will be coming.

COOL Gets Cold Shoulder

As country-of-origin language was drafted into the farm bill, farm groups insisted the USDA be barred from establishing a traceback system that would reach back to the farm.

Here you have legislation that says only pork from pigs born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the U.S. can carry a label identifying it as a “product of the USA.” Early weaned pigs from Canada that spend all but 2-3 weeks of their lives on U.S. soil, eating U.S.-grown feedstuffs and slaughtered in U.S. packing plants cannot be designated as U.S. pork.

Now, fast-forward two years to Sept. 30, 2004, when COOL becomes mandatory. The retailer admonishes the packer, insisting the pork be labeled accurately. The packer, recognizing the liability, tells his suppliers (that's you), “We need to certify the origin of these pigs.”

Certification means third-party verification. I wonder if the “independent family farm advocates” that helped champion the labeling initiative anticipated the fallout.

I'm told that some integrators have stated flatly: “Philosophically, we disagree with this (COOL); we think it's wrong for the industry; but, we're ready to go with it.”

Canadians are mad as hops about the requirement, threatening a challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement. For starters, a good share of the pigs born in the western provinces finds a home in the Midwest. Midwestern finishers aren't too keen on losing their source of pigs either.

Of course, our northern neighbors may decide that a “produced in Canada” stamp could work in their favor. They already have mandatory identification for cattle, why not extend it to sheep and hogs?

“Organic” Labeling

We also have new organic labeling rules. USDA even saw fit to create three categories. Foods meeting all organic parameters are labeled “100% organic.” Those that are at least 95% organic can be labeled “organic.” Foods containing 70% or less organic ingredients are designated with “contains organic ingredients” labels.

Will consumers think about the 5% or 30% “non-organic” ingredients in the latter two? Probably not. They'll see “organic” and plunk down their hard-earned dollars.

Maybe when the “organic” hoopla settles down, the general public will recognize the most abundant food supply in the world carries little or no risk when handled properly.

In the meantime, however, USDA has ponied up $5 million for a national cost-share program to help defray the cost of certification (aka: third-party verification).

Isn't it interesting that the lobbyists and bill writers can tolerate products with 5% or 30% non-organic contents, yet many of these same folks are demanding zero tolerance in the antibiotic debates? After all, antibiotic resistance in humans has not been linked to antibiotic use in food-producing animals.

Where Will It End?

The industry is working with the Food Marketing Institute and the National Council of Chain Restaurants to develop a science-based animal welfare index. More and tougher environmental regulations are written almost daily. New air emission standards are expected from the National Research Council by year's end.

Do you think the government and/or consumers will take your word that your pigs were born in the U.S., were never fed antibiotics, were raised according to acceptable welfare standards and that your operation meets all environmental regulations?

If you plan to raise hogs well into the 21st century, mandatory identification and third-party certification will probably become a part of your everyday lives. Market differentiation has a price. If you're not inclined to pay it, I'd suggest you contact your newly elected legislators before they turn on their computers and begin drafting a new round of standards and regulations.