In my mother’s kitchen there used to be a soup tin of grease left over from frying bacon on Sunday mornings. The fat got reused for cooking, adding flavour to many dishes. I have never had a similar can in my own kitchen, however; the trend for a while was to move away from animal fat, toward margarine and vegetable oils. Jump ahead 35 years and a number of big thinkers about food are accusing margarine of crimes against health and flavour. Many chefs are embracing butter and bacon with enthusiasm.
Humans have been eating pork for a long time, and today it accounts for over a third of the meat consumed worldwide. Domestication of the pig is one of the earliest forms of livestock, believed to have its origins in either China or the Near East as early as 5000 BC. By the 15th century the French art of charcuterie had developed into a highly organized and regulated guild system for producing bacon, ham, sausage, pâtés, and a variety of salted and dried meats—all principally from pork.
Chef Todd Bright from Wild Rice restaurant has much of his training in Asian cuisines, and gets quite excited about pork. “The French and the Chinese have done great things with pork,” he says. “Look at all the charcuterie, and the barbecued pork, and Chinese sausages. They use the entire animal. The pig is also the perfect size animal for our restaurant. It’s got all these different cuts that you can do a lot with.”
The public still harbours misconceptions about the safety and preparation of pork. Mat Ball, of Johnston’s Packers in Chilliwack, emphasizes that pork is not a white meat. “Cooking pork until it is white produces an overcooked meat which can be tough and dry,” he says. Cooking it to medium or medium-well—an internal temperature of 150ºF to 165ºF—will be adequate to kill any pathogens and it will produce a beautifully moist, tender, and tasty roast.
But Chef Bright laments that many customers won’t eat it that way. “I use organic pork from Sloping Hill Farm on Vancouver Island. We marinated and roasted our own barbecue pork. I had that done medium-well, and it was beautiful,” he explains. “But the first time I served it people were sending it back, saying, ‘This pork isn’t cooked.’ It drove me crazy.”
Certainly much has changed—in pork cooking and pork farming. The Canadian Quality Assurance (CQA) for Canadian Hog Producers has introduced significant changes to the way hogs are raised since even ten years ago—in particular with minimum-space requirements, antibiotic use, and feed practices.
Chad Goertzen, of Sundance Farms, and a director of the BC Pork Producers Association, believes the CQA guidelines represent a huge improvement over previous practices. Barns are not “packed to the rafters”—minimum-space requirements are very specific. He notes that the living conditions of his hogs often surprises people. “When I tour people through our barns they’re often surprised that the pigs are so clean. If you raise pigs in a proper environment they won’t get dirty—they actually keep their sleeping space and their eating spaces clean,” he explains. Feed practices have also been updated to ensure the health of the hogs. “There’s no meat meal, or bone meal, or other animal parts in the feed—that has been a ‘no-no’ for quite a long time.”
To assure quality and nutrition, Goertzen takes his practices one step further, and makes his own feeds. This may add to the time and expense of raising animals, but Geortzen thinks it’s worth it. “Most growers don’t think it’s affordable. But we’ve done the math, and it’s by far the best way to go in terms of quality, cost savings, and efficiency.” His main ingredients are barley, wheat, peas, and soybean meal, with some micronutrients, principally vitamins and minerals. He will use corn, depending on the market price, and may include milk powder, particularly for young animals.
“There are no antibiotics or growth hormones in our feed, or in our finished product,” Goertzen adds. With better feed and adequate space, animals are less likely to be stressed, and disease is reduced. The overuse of antibiotics, while a significant public concern, is not an issue in Goertzen’s operation. “We only use medications if we need to, and only by vet prescriptions. The only time we will ever change that is if we have a health issue in one of our barns, and then we will do the testing and the blood work. The vet will look at it and tell us what we need, give us a written prescription, and tell us how much we are allowed to use. We use the absolute minimum amounts,” Goertzen explains. “We track every animal that has been medicated. Those animals are kept out of the food system until the antibiotics clear their systems.”
Perhaps the most significant change that affects the health of his animals is a big improvement in bio-security practices. This involves controlling the access to hog barns to ensure that pathogens are excluded from the environment. “Our bio-security has become so much more efficient that we are not introducing anything to our pigs that would make them sick,” he says.
While the premium feed and extra space for his hogs do raise his costs, he’s able to get a better price from Johnston’s, who are developing their own brand. “We have an incentive program,” explains Mat Ball. “We’re working more closely with our local farmers. We want to know what they are feeding the animals and how they are treating them. They get paid a considerable bonus for their efforts, and we get really beautiful pork.”
Michael Marrapese, based in the Fraser Valley, works with FarmFolk/CityFolk to cultivate a local, sustainable food system.
Where to find BC pork:
- Johnston’s pork is available at retailers like Armando’s in the Granville Island Public Market, Heringers Meats in Steveston, Cioffi’s Meat Market in Burnaby, and Newport Village Meats in Port Moody. See www.johnstons.ca for a complete list.
- Gelderman Farms also makes their own feed, and sells their products at many farmers’ markets. You can also purchase online at www.geldermanfarms.ca or by phone, 604-864-9096.
- The Lepp family have their own farm store in Abbotsford, where they sell pork they’ve raised themselves, as well as a selection of local produce in season, and an extensive range of BC products. Lepp Farm Market, 604-851-5377. www.leppfarmmarket.com