Conversations and Pork Biotechnology

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Having a conversation with experts, your vet, and your customers go a long way in the world of pork biotechnology.

In an age where farm to fork traceability of products is expected, farmers need to be sure they are rearing pigs to the standards of their customer. Traceability is important to all customers – local, domestic, and global. Very often, the loudest voice in in the pork industry is the global market. This past October, two major pork producers, JBS Swift and Tyson Foods announced a ban of ractopamine in their food chain. The timing of this could not be more associated with global markets- Asia is still reeling from the impact of African Swine Fever. The continuing losses are massive, and for a part of the world where pork reigns king on the plate, demand is strong. However, in order to serve this market, American producers need to change some of their standard use of biotechnology, including the use of ractopamine.

Responsible use of biotechnology serves a beneficial role in enhancing efficiency of pig production. In the United States, use of biotechnology has greatly benefited pork availability and kept food prices affordable for the population. This said, biotechnology usage in the United States is also market dependent, this includes the use of ractopamine. Ractopamine, known by the brand name Paylean®, is an FDA approved feed additive that briefly extends the lean growth of the pig, and delays fat deposition for a short time. For pig farmers, this is useful in improving feed efficiency and lean pork yield in late finishing hogs. Additionally, show pig enthusiasts utilize ractopamine to keep heavy hogs from laying down too much fat just before the show.

In Pennsylvania, much like in the United States at large, ractopamine usage by pig farmers is market dependent. This is not because ractopamine is an unsafe product, but because there are local and domestic markets for pork that are raised without ractopamine. Similar to demand for pork reared without antibiotics, reared on pasture, or specialty heritage breed pork, these specialty pork products are labeled due to customer demands. However, because of labeling, it is easy to forget regulations that are already in place for food safety in the United States.

Like many biotechnologies, use of ractopamine is controversial around the world. In the United States, legal usage of drugs, feed supplements, antibiotics, and veterinary products in food animals is highly regulated at USDA inspected harvest facilities through residue testing. Residues are signatures of the drug, supplement, antibiotic, or other product that can be found within the tissue. Residues are eliminated over time as the animal breaks down those products. Any meat with unsafe residue levels are removed from the food chain.

For harvest facilities, any animal that tests positive for residues is an expense and loss of saleable product. For pig farmers, loss of saleable meat at the plant is likely a broken relationship between the harvest facilities and the farmer, potentially a loss of a market for your pork. Losing your market puts the success of your pig business at risk. This includes show hogs. To keep the shows going, you need to be aware of the customer demands where your hogs are sold after the show, to be sure that there is an outlet for those hogs and the shows can continue for years to come.

Despite these regulations, some customers – local, domestic, and global- would prefer that certain products are not utilized at all. To be a player in any market means you meet the customers’ demands. Participating in any market makes it the responsibility of the farmer or pig caretaker to know where their pigs are sold, and to be sure you are meeting your customer’s expectations. Regardless of the size of your operation, this requires a conversation with your customer. Be it the customers at the local farmers’ market, the local butcher shop, a domestic packer, or global player, be sure to have that conversation long before you are ready to sell your pigs.

So how can pig producers, big and small, utilize biotechnologies and keep their markets and operations running smoothly?

  • Work with a veterinarian, nutritionist, and extension. Experts will help you understand responsible use of biotechnologies, such as ractopamine and veterinary interventions such as antibiotics.
  • Read the label on any product you choose to use. Labeling on all products describes legal usage based on FDA approval of the product. Utilizing any products outside of the labeling is only legal per veterinary guidance. This includes feed supplements.
  • Follow withdrawal times. Found on the label, following withdrawal times is key to responsible food production.
  • Talk to your customer. Know what your customer is expecting, even if that customer is a large packer, or your neighbor. Be sure to discuss your responsible use of biotechnology, a conversation goes a long way to benefit both producer and customer.

Use of biotechnologies has many benefits for pig producers. However, not all customers are ready to accept those biotechnologies in their food system. Being on the same page about biotechnology use with your customer will help you maintain access to your market and keep your pig operation running smoothly.

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