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Pork checkoff funds research, can't please all producers

A new disease turned up in the $20 billion United States hog industry in May, and the National Pork Board’s response illustrates the role it plays in swine research. Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDV) previously had been found mainly in Asia. It threatened to kill whole litters of piglets.

The Des Moines-based Pork Board sprang into action last spring, making $450,000 immediately available for research on the disease. The Pork Board gets its money from the mandatory pork check-off program, which raised $83 million last year.

Paul Sundberg, the Pork Board’s vice president for science and technology, said a fast-track process put funds in U.S. labs in two weeks, using a review process that normally takes months. That process depends on hog producer volunteers who sit on the committees that decide the Pork Board’s research priorities.

“On those committees, we work hard to get the best cross-section of producers in the country that we can get,” Sundberg said, because the goal is for pork check-off money to benefit the entire industry.

Sundberg said small-scale producers sit side-by-side with big company representatives on committees for animal science, swine health, environment, animal welfare and food safety. Some perennial research topics include salmonella, swine flu, environmental impact and feed efficiency. But the pork industry has changed significantly since the mandatory check-off began in 1986.

Iowa hog farmer Paul Willis said back then, he supported it. But since then, hog farming has become much more consolidated.

“With the change in the hog business, there aren’t really very many individual, independent, hog farmers these days,” he said. “So I think primarily the promotion and the money is used for promoting industrial pork.”

That’s not what Willis raises. He’s the founder of Niman Ranch, a producer group that uses traditional outdoor housing rather than large confinement barns and generally favors smaller-scale production of specialty breeds, including Berkshire pigs.

Iowa State University animal science professor John Mabry has a 10-thousand dollar grant from the Pork Board to look at those pigs.

“This particular project was aimed at looking at this Berkshire genetics as a little bit different genetics than the commodity pork,” Mabry said.

His study aims to find the best feed recipe for these pigs, so, for example, a farmer doesn’t feed them more protein than they can make use of.

“If we’re going to try and create the right nutritional program for them, we’ve got to have certain pieces of information in order to do that,” Mabry said.

Once he has those, Mabry will take his initial results to willing farmers who will test how well proposed improvements actually work. Even with research like Mabry’s, Willis said he is disappointed in the Check-off. Niche producers like him don’t really see much benefit, he said. Yet all hog farmers pay 40 cents into the Check-off for every $100 worth of hogs they sell.

Back in 2000, a narrow majority of hog producers voted to end the mandatory Check-off. But after a series of legal actions, the USDA, which oversees the program, determined it would stay.

“There was a lot of effort that went into, this and we actually won the vote,” Willis said. “And then it didn’t matter.”

Willis doesn’t feel that what benefits the broader pork industry necessarily helps his business.

Some recent research topics, such as antibiotic use, correlate with public concerns and media attention to the industry. But Sundberg said that doesn’t drive the agenda.

“We’ve been funding research, for example, on euthanasia and sow housing for 15 years,” he said, referencing topics that animal rights activists recently have pressured pork producers on. And the industry has worked to improve its image—promotion is a major aspect of the Pork Board’s mission. But Sundberg said his team vets any messages that his colleagues in marketing propose.

“We’re the department that’s responsible for the things that are said. They’ll take those research results, and they’ll massage [them] to understandable language for consumers, for the public,” he said. “But then we take a look at it back again.”

Sundberg said the science must support the message. With about nine percent of the budget going to research each year, science is neither the top priority of the Pork Board nor the biggest player in swine research funding. But it’s an integral part of both. 

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames