Pork officials meet with decision makers in food sector

DES MOINES, Iowa — Skilled, well-financed and professional activist campaigns have pushed grocery and fast food chains to announce gestation stall bans.

Those companies are also facing campaigns over antibiotics, sustainability and other animal welfare issues.

But the U.S. National Pork Producers Council thinks it finally has a good shot at protecting farmers better in future battles, its leaders told the agricultural press at the World Pork Expo.

“It’s not their job to reach out to us for their questions, it’s our job to come to them to tell them what we’re doing,” said NPPC industry relations vice-president Dallas Hockman.

NPPC officials have visited dozens of food companies and plan to provide tours to representatives of the top 15 food retailers through farms and the Iowa pork chain to better brief company executives for the next activist campaign.

“Our challenge and opportunity is to prevent (suddenly announced bans on production practices) on future decisions,” said Hockman.

Many major grocery and fast food chains have announced they will not buy pork from pigs raised in gestation stall systems, with some of the ban start dates expected in the near future, with little time for producers to change their barns.

That has created anxiety and anger among U.S. hog farmers, who almost entirely operate with gestation stall systems.

If they don’t convert and big companies maintain their bans, many farmers could have trouble selling their pigs and be forced to take a discount price.

Hockman said the retailers are now realizing the flip-side of that coin: there might not be enough stall-free pork available when the bans go into effect.

“We’ve heard it time and again from those meetings (with senior food company officials),” said Hockman.

He said they tell him that they had no idea of the consequences and many said if they had a chance to redo it, they’d make a different decision.

The NPPC believes about 20 percent of the U.S. herd is changing to stall-free systems, with about two to three percent converting each year.

Hockman said the pork industry didn’t realize it was so badly equipped to deal with crises like the stall-pork bans until they erupted.

National Pork Board vice-president Jerrod Sutton said the McDonald’s ban on stall-pork was a shock, be-cause they had been given no previous warning.

“We were deeply engaged in marketing with McDonald’s with the culinary team, … with the preparing team, doing what we’ve always done — enhancing the demand for pork products,” said Sutton.

“None of those folks were aware of, or involved in the discussions internally about … that decision.”

Instead of being well-connected with the decision makers, pork industry leaders realized they generally spoke with mid-level people and once McDonald’s announced a ban, other companies followed suit.

“A cascade effect was the result of that through the industry,” said Sutton.

Now the NPB and the NPPC have been meeting with the senior executives of the American food industry and Hockman said the meetings have been open.

With many issues before the industry, such as antibiotic use, ractopamine, castration and tail-docking, the hog industry hopes to be able to talk to grocers and food companies before they announce decisions.

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