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Why Americans are eating more pork now than they have in decades

By Caitlin Dewey

May 26, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Piglets in a farrowing pen at the Iowa Select sow farm outside of Humeston, Iowa. A new litter is born in one of these pens every 25 minutes, and the piglets remain from birth to three weeks. (Tyler Mertins/National Press Foundation)

HUMESTON, Iowa — The Iowa Select pig farm gives its visitors headphones, because the squeal of hogs is deafening. This is either a chorus for the damned -- or the sound of pork's ascendancy.

Americans, long devoted to chicken and beef, are eating more pork now than they have in years. And brand-new farms such as this one, a $20 million facility one hour south of Des Moines, are opening to meet demand for everything from pork belly to pig ears.

In Iowa alone, meatpackers have recently broken ground on new slaughterhouses worth well over $500 million. By the end of 2018, the Agriculture Department predicts that U.S. pork production will equal — and occasionally exceed — that of beef, though neither red meat yet rivals chicken.

Related: [Pork recipes from The Washington Post]

Some of that demand will come from growing foreign markets. But Americans have developed a new taste for pork, particularly bacon, as well. According to the market research firm Euromonitor, sales of pork are up 20 percent in the United States since 2011.

"More people are eating out, and pork is in a good position in the food service sector," said Dennis Smith, a commodities broker and analyst at Archer Financial Services. "Just look at all the bacon they're putting on burgers."

As Smith and others who watch the hog industry explain it, a confluence of factors appears to lie behind pork's growing popularity. Bacon is indeed one of them: Last winter, demand grew so high that the country's pork-belly supply hit a 50-year low — sparking (unfounded) fears of a bacon shortage.

The growing influence of Asian cuisines, particularly Korean and Vietnamese, have also made some cuts of pork newly popular. In its 2016 food trends report, Google named char siu, bulgogi and banh mi — which frequently include pork — among the year's hottest foods.

And Americans are increasingly turning to fast-food restaurants for breakfast, where bacon and pork sausage are both popular.

Demographics play a major role, as well: Pork is a popular meat in Latino cooking, and sales have grown with that population.

Pork has also benefited from the fact that Americans' spending on food, particularly at restaurants, has rebounded since the recession. According to the USDA, Americans have spent more money at restaurants in each year since 2010. A 2013 study by researchers at Purdue University found that spending on meat, in particular, spiked after the recession, especially for high-quality cuts of chicken, pork and beef.

If all that weren't enough, pork has also had a little help from an organization called the Pork Board — an industry group that works to grow demand for the "other white meat." (They are, in fact, the ones who coined that tagline in the 1980s.)

For the past several years, the Pork Board has been waging an aggressive campaign to popularize different cuts of pork, explained Jarrod Sutton, a marketing executive with the organization. Aside from publicizing pork recipes and rebranding several cuts — a pork chop can now be a "porterhouse," for instance — the board has worked behind the scenes with restaurants and retailers, getting things such as pork bellies on their menus and in their meat cases.

Recently, Pork Board partnered with Longhorn Steakhouse — a chain best known, as its name implies, for gigantic servings of beef — to feature a sous-vide pork chop with garlic-herb butter.

According to Datassential, a market research firm that tracks restaurant menus, that is only one of many U.S. restaurants that have recently begun introducing dishes made with pork belly, pork shoulder, pulled pork and better chop cuts. 

"How much pork are people willing to consume?" Sutton asked. "Based on the intelligence we have, it's only going to grow in the future."

One of several farrowing rooms at Iowa Select's sow farm in Humeston. Each room has space for 84 pregnant sows and their future piglets. (Tyler Mertins/National Press Foundation)

Anticipated growth in the United States is not the only reason that new hog farms and slaughterhouses are popping up across the Midwest. Foreign demand is also strong in markets such as Mexico, China and Japan, and hog farms and processors are becoming more productive.

A number of companies have recently decided to embark on expansion projects. In Sioux City, an afternoon's drive from the Humeston pig farm, Seaboard Triumph Foods is building a huge, $300 million plant that will span almost a million square feet and process upward of 20,000 hogs a day. Prestage Foods, a large producer of pork and turkey, recently broke ground on a new pork plant in Eagle Grove, Iowa, that will process 10,000 hogs each day.

When these facilities open, USDA predicts, an additional 900 million pounds of pork will hit the U.S. market — which may edge prices down a bit and further stimulate demand. In either case, by the end of 2018 U.S. farmers are expected to produce as much pork as beef — which is, for the pork industry, an unprecedented accomplishment.

"It's never happened before," Smith said. "It's the first time in history that pork has equaled or surpassed beef production."

In Humeston, pig producers are gearing up. In addition to this new facility, which houses more than 6,000 sows, Iowa Select is building three other, larger sow farms across Iowa.

A new litter of piglets is born here every 25 minutes, on average, stumbling out into the chorus of pig squeals and the glare of overhead heat lamps. Bloated sows lie in grids of 84 metal pens to give birth, their piglets — some still trailing dried umbilical cords — squirming and sleeping next to them.

After three weeks here with their mothers, the piglets are trucked to a separate nursery, then to a "finishing" farm where they'll fatten up. After that, it's off to the packing plant.

… And quite possibly, your next pack of bacon.

Watch more!
How Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, tricked Americans into eating bacon for breakfast. (Daron Taylor, Dani Johnson/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Why restaurants are putting bacon back on everything again

Why Americans are falling out of love with one of their favorite fruits

Is this the beginning of the end of meat?


Caitlin Dewey is the food policy writer for Wonkblog. Subscribe to her daily newsletter: tinyletter.com/cdewey.

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