The nation’s pork producers are in an uproar after the federal government abruptly removed bacon, pork chops, pork links, ham and all other pig products from the national menu for 206,000 federal inmates.
The ban started with the new fiscal year last week.
The Bureau of Prisons, which is responsible for running 122 federal penitentiaries and feeding their inmates three meals a day, said the decision was based on a survey of prisoners’ food preferences:
They just don’t like the taste of pork.
“Why keep pushing food that people don’t want to eat?” asked Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the prison bureau. “Pork has been the lowest-rated food by inmates for several years,” It also apparently got more expensive for the government to buy, although he did not provide specifics.
The National Pork Producers Council isn’t buying it. “I find it hard to believe that a survey would have found a majority of any population saying, ‘No thanks, I don’t want any bacon,'” said Dave Warner, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade association, which represents the nation’s hog farmers.
“We’re going to find out how this came about and go from there,” Warner said. “We wouldn’t rule out any options to resolve this.” He said the association “is still formulating our strategy” to reverse the prison decision, which the industry first learned about Monday when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called for comment.
The pork industry produces 24 billion pounds a year of pork products, from tenderloin to bacon, its most popular product. About a quarter of that is exported.
Warner said pork is healthy and economical, especially for a big buyer like the federal government. “Not to throw beef under the bus, but we cost a lot less than beef.”
“We’re nutritious,” he said. “A boneless pork chop or loin is a very healthy alternative to lots of other foods. If you compare a pork tenderloin to a rib eye steak and a boneless chicken breast, we come out pretty well.”
But Ross said that based on annual surveys of inmates’ food preferences, pork lost its luster years ago. To wit: In the last two years, the federal prison menu dropped to just two pork products, he said.
“And we were paying more than what we’d like to pay,” Ross said.
“People are more health conscious these days,” he said. “Some people choose to be vegetarian or vegan. That’s their preference.” As of last week, the prison menu had added an “economically viable” turkey bacon substitute.
Incarcerated pork lovers still have an option: The prison commissary, a convenience store that sells packaged pork rinds and precooked bacon. But they have to pay.
Observant Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat pork, and the prison system has long made accommodations for them by providing alternatives to pork and halal and kosher foods. Ross declined to say whether there has been an increase in Muslim or Jewish inmates in recent years and whether that may have factored into the survey responses.
“In general we welcome the change because it’s facilitating the accommodation of Muslim inmates,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s largest Muslim civil rights advocacy group. “We hope it’s not an indication of an increasing number of Muslims in the prison system.”
Hooper predicted that anti-Islam groups would spin the decision into a case of the federal government acting under pressure from Muslims.
“This is just the kind of thing that drives them crazy,” he said. “It will stoke the fires of Islamophobia based on the usual conspiracy theories.”