Hog farmers don’t talk about the “other white meat” anymore, but the emphasis on fast-growing, lean pigs reflected in that 1980s-era marketing campaign still dominates the industry.
Packing companies prefer pigs with muscle and not fat, to maximize efficiency, and consumers still prefer light-colored pork when they are shopping at the supermarket.
A couple of Minnesota businesses are hoping to change that by raising a darker-colored, marbled pork that’s juicier and more tender.
The latest example is Comfrey Farm, a business in Windom, Minn., that’s butchering 5,000 pigs per day from four nearby, tightly controlled farms, and already exporting to Japan.
“Pork isn’t supposed to be white,” said Ernie Davis, the chief executive of the company, which is owned by Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune.
The company’s meatpacking plant employs 500 people in a former beef plant that shut down in 2015 and was purchased by Taylor. Comfrey is working through “certified Duroc” approval for its products from the National Swine Registry, and plans to roll out its brand directly to consumers in December.
The Duroc breed, whose pigs are reddish-brown to golden with droopy ears, has been around since Columbus brought red pigs with him to the Americas on his second voyage. The name didn’t emerge until a breeder in New York named a red boar after his then famous trotting stallion — Duroc.
The pigs are known for marbling and darker color, but in the later part of the 20th century, lean, white meat took over the industry. Whiter breeds of pigs are not only leaner but the sows birth larger litters, which made them more efficient for an industry that was consolidating fast and marketing itself to America as the “other white meat,” likening pork to chicken.
“Those lean type of genetics were efficient and cost-effective to get them to market,” said Steve Larsen, assistant vice president of science and technology at the National Pork Board. “Maybe five years ago, the industry realized we need more than just lean pigs. Something with darker-colored loin, more fat in there, because fat is flavor.”
The Pork Board’s consumer research has found that shoppers are still drawn to lighter-colored pork when they see it wrapped in plastic in the supermarket, said Larsen, but that changes when they taste cooked pork.
“They all prefer the darker-colored pork chops after they’ve been cooked,” Larsen said. “From a meat science standpoint, the darker the pork chop, the more juicy, the more flavorful.”
An outlier in the industry
Comfrey Farm is not the first pork company in Minnesota to market Duroc genetics. Compart Family Farms, based in Nicollet, has been raising the pigs for 60 years, selling genetics around the country, and marketing the pork under its own brand, Compart Duroc, since 2004. The company has farms across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, a packing facility in Sioux City that handles about 2,000 pigs per week, and customers around the world, but it’s still an outlier in the pork industry, said Jim Compart, one of the owners.
“There’s not a lot of people that are focused on meat quality yet, because the packers are not paying for meat quality,” Compart said. “They’re just looking at pounds. They’re just treating it like a raw material, rather than good-tasting pork.”
When pounds per animal are the top priority, fattier pigs like the Duroc raised by Compart and Comfrey are less desirable. And in the pork business, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t classify meat quality the way it does for beef, the only way for a producer to differentiate their product from the commodity pork produced by the giant slaughterhouses is to come up with their own brand.
Comfrey Farm was the idea of Taylor, who grew up 15 miles from the packing facility. Farms he owned had been producing pork for Hormel for many years, but he decided he wanted his own business, and wanted to provide jobs in rural Minnesota. He also likes the pork better.
“I know it’s different than the product I was doing for Hormel,” Taylor said. “It tastes better. We think it’s healthier.”
Restaurants and firms that process meat and repackage it to sell to restaurants already buy Duroc pork, but ultimately both Comfrey and Compart would like to sell their products in grocery stores.
Davis said Comfrey-branded pork will be available in grocery stores in January.
Compart said it’s been a struggle to persuade grocery-store buyers that consumers will pay extra for higher-quality pork, even though Compart Duroc is sold to high-end restaurants all over the country.
“The retail people are very fickle,” Compart said. “There’s a lot of products that the restaurants buy that consumers never get a chance to buy.”