Food Produced from the Heart: A Conversation

A couple weeks ago The Motherhood emailed me with this opportunity:  We’re hosting a virtual briefing next week with several family farmers, who also happen to be moms, to share information on the importance of public health, animal health and well-being, and the responsible use of antibiotics to keep animals healthy and to provide safe and nutritious meat products to families everywhere – including their own!

Fun, right? Sign me up! The briefing was last Thursday at noon, and would you believe my two little people played quietly (for the most part) through the whole thing? Two points for the littles!

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During the briefing we heard from two pork farmers and a swine veterinarian. We discussed farm practices and they shared what hog farming involves. My mom grew up on a dairy farm that we visited often when I was growing up, but large scale hog operations aren’t something I’ve been around. It was interesting to hear how they keep everything clean and safe.

Fun facts about farms:

  • 97% of farms in America are family-owned.
  • Pork farmers have reduced their carbon footprint by 35% over the past 50 years and use 41% less water than they did 50 years ago.
  • All antibiotics used on the farm are approved by the FDA after they undergo a rigorous review for safety to animals, humans and the environment. (It’s unfortunate that I have so little faith in the FDA. ;) )
  • FDA sets withdrawal periods – the time between the last dose and when an animal can be sent to market – for all antibiotics.
  • Pork farmers abide by Pork Quality Assurance® Plus – a program that provides pork farmers, and their veterinarians with the principles and guidelines for responsible antibiotic use.

Pork Lingo:

  • Finishing (grow): The growth period (14 – 16 weeks) between the nursery and market. A finished hog will weigh 240 – 260 lbs. (market weight).
  • Hog: A standard term for growing swine.
  • Judicious antibiotic use: How farmers use antibiotics responsibly: working closely with their veterinarian, obeying strict FDA guidelines, etc. Farmers use antibiotics judiciously to keep the potential risk extremely low of developing antibiotic resistant bacteria that is harmful to humans.
  • Sow: A female pig that has given birth to a litter of piglets.

We asked several questions of the farmers, mainly concerned with the safety of meat. Here’s one that I see as a common miscommunication.

Do you think that there is any miscommunication about antibiotic-free meat?

Every drug that we administer has a FDA withdrawal period (meaning the time between the last dose and when an animal can be sent to market) that we make sure to pay strict attention to. We also keep a close record of all antibiotics that have been administered. The thing is, all meat is antibiotic-free! The labels are technically correct, but they can be confusing. Consumers sometimes think that restaurants or stores without the “antibiotic-free” stickers are selling meat that still has antibiotics in the meat – and that’s not true.

With the grass-fed movement, this may have been the most interesting question for consumers who are unfamiliar with hog farms.

Are your animals free-range grass fed?

We moved our animals inside into our barn and we really prevented predators and the spread of disease. Now that the animals are kept inside, we use less medication than when they were living outside. It’s actually easier to keep animals healthier when they live inside more controlled environments. Cattle can eat grass because they have more than one stomach, but our hogs do not eat grass. They only have one stomach and they don’t get nutritional value from grass.

Even my local small farmers feed their hogs. The hogs do live outside and have the freedom to root around (which I think is a good thing) but can’t just eat grass. They have to supplement their diet. I totally understand why barns are needed for such a large farm (2,000 hogs at a time if I remember right) though.

While I completely respect the job they are doing and truly believe they are doing everything they can to provide a safe, tasty product from a huge farm, my own experience with meat contradicted the statement that there’s no need to buy special or organic meat, because all meat in the store is safe and equal. Actually, maybe everything in the store is equal, but we get our pork from local farmers or 4-Hers and there is simply no comparison in the quality. I’ve bought plenty of bacon and sausage at the store, too, and there is a huge difference in taste and texture. Now, as for what that difference translates to health-wise, I really can’t say, and the truth of the matter is I’m not a farmer. I don’t know why the quality is better with local, small farm meat. Is it in the processing? What they eat? How they roam? I don’t know, but there is definitely a difference.

What do you think? Do you purchase locally-raised or organic meat? (It’s much more important to me to buy local than organic.) How important to you is all this antibiotic and grass-fed hoopla?
Resources for more information:

Disclosure: I participated in this program on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council. All opinions are my own.

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Comments

  1. I just wanted to inform you on what 4-Hers and FFA students feed their hogs. I know this from my own children participating in fairs. A lot of the hogs are fed a feed that has so many ingredients in them that you can not pronounce. Hogs are also the only fair animal that can contain a steroid in the feed legally. I totally support these programs and believe the children learn a lot of responsibility, just wanted to give you a little background to 4-H or FFA animals.

    • Thank you for weighing in! It’s good to hear from someone with experience. Like I said, I have no idea *what* exactly makes the quality of meat different. Do you know? Is it the processing? The food? All I know is that the “side of pork” I get from the butcher is so much better, less fatty than the pork (mainly sausage and bacon) that I buy at the store.

    • Thanks to Motherhood.com for sponsoring this meeting. Between 97-98% of the feed that our hogs eat is a combination of corn and soybean meal. The rest is minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. The corn is the corn we raise on our farm and the soybean meal is purchased from the local soybean processing plant. We work with an animal nutritionist to make sure they receive the proper nutrients. As far as taste, we eat our own meat that we raise. In fact, I have a whole freezer full of pork!

  2. I haven’t raised a pig (yet), but as we have been raising chickens in portable tractors, I can tell you there is a huge difference in the quality just based on having the clean yard space.

    I think claiming pigs don’t need access to pasture because they don’t eat grass is just an excuse. Yes, of course, there is more management required when animals have access to the “great outdoors,” but controlled environments cannot compete with nature. Micronutrients, rooting in the dirt, and fresh air all have great arguments. I’m sure there are others, but that’s a start!

    • I can tell a HUGE difference in my eggs from the farm and eggs from the store. Again, I’m absolutely not an expert, but think animals were created for the outdoors and to be able to roam. I just don’t know how to make that work with big farms, you know?

    • We actually had our hogs outside at one time but living in Minnesota, the weather causes a lot of issues. Our hogs would get sunburned and are also subject to mange. In the winter, it was very difficult to keep them warm. Blizzards and severe cold were especially harmful to them. We also had to deal with frozen waterers which would deny them water until they unthawed.

  3. I do not eat pork. Pigs, hogs, sows are all very nasty animals. my Choice. However, the comments about why the swine are not kept out doors defies nature itself. The wild hogs are taking over in all the states. They live in the cold, heat, snow, ice, etc. They live on roots and your garden and lawn. They are reproducing at an alarming rate. Why then do we raise our food swine, in heated/cooled buildings with lots of antibiotics and GMO corn??? Just something to ponder.

  4. Organic meat (or the uncertified equivalent of it) is important enough to us that we usually do without meat if we can’t afford to buy organic. We tend to avoid pork, particularly, because it’s so unhealthy (though I have to admit that we’re suckers for the occasional helping of bacon.) Our neighborhood has a weekly farmers’ market that’s limited to local, natural producers. According to them, organic meat, dairy, and eggs are of better quality because the animals usually eat a more nourishing diet and are healthier overall. I.e., their bodies can do a better job of creating meat, milk, and eggs. Also, the food travels a shorter distance to your table and therefore can be more lightly processed (no need for preservatives, coloring agents, etc.). Both these factors also mean the food retains more of its original flavor, just as with local fruits and veggies.

    • Love a good farmer’s market! I’ve decided that buying local is more important for us than organic from a store. It’s pretty rare that I buy regular meat (usually chicken breasts) from a store.

  5. I think this post makes a great point that the questions are so deep and so complex that there are NO easy answers. I think the key is that the buyer KNOWS exactly what they’re buying and are comfortable with it. I don’t think the question buyers should ask is if the meat is antibiotic-free–they should be asking what, when, and how were antibiotics administered and determine if they are comfortable with that. The problem is, you can’t ask those questions when you buy in the grocery store.

    As far as the grass-fed question goes, again, it’s more than “do the pigs eat grass.” It’s how much grass vs what other things and why. We have free-range, grass fed chickens, but they still eat chicken feed. They only get about 20% of their total dietary needs from grass and bugs. (And if you buy grass-fed eggs you know that 20% makes a HUGE difference!) That’s normal. Our grass-fed sheep still get supplemented with bagged feed late in gestation in the winter because of poor soil health in our area (hopefully it’s a problem with a long-term correction). Pigs might not be able to get ALL their nutrition from grass, but they can get some if it and it creates a healthier holistic system overall for the whole farm. Healthy grass-based farm systems are diverse–the animals eat grass AND other feeds, they are inside AND outside, they get meds when they are sick AND minimal “preventative” chemical meds when they are healthy. Consumers have to stop taking the easy way (the FDA way) out and look at the whole, big picture.

    • Jamie! This is such a well thought out response. You are so right. There are NO easy answers. (And yes. I still don’t trust the FDA for squat.) ;)

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