It’s been all about pork alternatives in the alt-meat space in 2020 and it’s a welcome, and important, shift from the focus on beef.
Ask any of my friends or family what my favorite food is and they’ll tell you it’s sausages, the British kind. There’s possibly nothing better than bangers and mash. Since I moved to New York, I’ve had to limit my consumption since the US doesn’t really do what I’d call proper bangers over here; lots of Italian sausages and sausage patties, which are fine and everything, but nowhere close to a Cumberland. But even if I could find the best bangers and mash in town, I’d still be hesitant to order it unless I knew how the pork was raised.
I visited a pig farm in the MidWest a couple of years ago and was pretty shocked by what I saw. There were rows and rows of pregnant pigs in crates, unable to turn around, only capable of sitting, standing or eating. At some points during the growth or breeding cycle, they were allowed to join each other in pens and socialize, but even then, it was a limited space and there was no straw or bedding, something that’s illegal in the EU. Most of the pigs will have never been outside, free to graze or root the ground with their sensitive snouts, wallow in the mud to cool down, or generally express their natural behaviors. But according to the proud operators of this state-of-the-art facility, all these measures were necessary to keep the pigs safe.
For the pregnant sows, the farm operators do not want them to injure themselves and risk the pregnancy by mixing with others; there are cases of aggression and social hierarchy that can even lead to deaths. They justify limiting the movement of sows with their piglets as they have a tendency to accidentally sit on them and kill them.
Biosecurity was a word I heard repeatedly during my trip; everyone involved had to shower and wear disinfected overalls and boots before entering the facility. At no point did clothes from outside enter. Disease control is one of the biggest challenges for pork producers; you only need to look at the spread of African Swine Flu through China to understand how rapid and devastating it can be. “Restocking will likely take around five years,” warns a recent report by Rabobank, which estimates that China, the world’s largest pig producer, has already lost up to half of its 430 million or so hogs to the disease or cullings — a far higher loss than official Chinese statistics convey. On a brighter note, biosecurity in China is expected to become “more important,” and “against a lot of uncertainties, commercialisation of a vaccine might happen in the next one to three years.”
Raising pigs outdoors, while much better for the pigs, makes it harder to control the spread of disease and infections as farmers have less control over what wildlife or other externalities the pigs might come into contact with. Losing a whole herd is big money lost; pork production is worth about $20 billion and supports around 550,000 jobs in the US each year, so it’s understandable producers want to uphold strict biosecurity measures to protect their herds.
And this is just how the vast majority of pigs are raised in the US, over 95%, to meet American demand for pork.
While I understand how the industry got to this place and I empathize why they felt these measures were necessary, I have since given up eating pork in this country unless it’s pasture-raised. That’s not easy considering the stats but thanks to some local producers in upstate New York courtesy of FreshDirect and great brands like Applegate and Niman Ranch that are trying to scale outdoor-grown or properly bedded pork in the US, I get by.
When I travel to the UK, I feel freer to indulge; outdoor-grown pork is much more common. However, I recently discovered that it could still be less than half of all pigs raised so I’ll need to be more careful in future.
That’s why I am super excited to see the growing range of pork alternatives cropping up since the start of the year. The most glitzy of them, plant-based meat alternatives manufacturer Impossible Foods’ Las Vegas launch of the Impossible Sausage and Impossible Pork at the Consumer Electronics Show last week. But we’ve also seen This, a UK group, raise funding for its plant-based pork products that also include bacon, and New Age Meats raise funding for its cultivated pork options — that’s through cell replication methods. Beyond Meat investor and rapper Snoop Dogg this week also released a limited edition version of the Dunkin’ Donut Beyond Sausage offering, the Beyond-D-O-Double G sandwich.
I’m actually, maybe surprisingly, a fan of the Beyond Sausage. It’s my favorite meat alternative on the market so far. I think the taste is very similar to real sausage and the texture is close. By comparison, I don’t eat the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger. They’re usually too salty and I don’t like to eat vast quantities of Impossible’s core ingredient soy as I’m not convinced of its nutritional benefits, especially in an extracted format, or the intensive way most of it is grown here — lots of pesticides and so on.
There’s also already so much focus on replacing beef in the plant-based and cultivated meat space — sure the market is huge (some $100 billion in US retail sales in 2018, according to ERS) — but from an animal welfare standpoint, I think it’s more urgent we replace these intensive factory pork farms.
Replacing 100% of US pork with outdoor-grown pigs in a safe and environmentally-friendly way would require a complete switch in management approach for indoor growers. That could be too drastic a change. With beef, at least all cows start their lives out on pasture and could be finished on grass and not in polluting feedlots. There’s also more research and data on the potential for beef and dairy cows to sequester carbon if raised regeneratively. As part of an integrated system with other livestock and crops, regeneratively-raised pork could also contribute to carbon sequestration and regenerating woodlands. But in stand-alone production, the data are less clear, sources tell me. There are also question marks around scaling these outdoor systems, especially as demand is only increasing. In fact, scaling indoor systems to keep up with global demand will already be hard enough. That’s why groups like World Animal Protection, formerly WSPA, are focusing on improving the welfare of these indoor systems by advocating for open housing indoors, the end of gestation crates and a plentiful supply of bedding with data to prove these practices actually produce healthier and larger litters.
“We firmly believe the indoor production systems have a place and can be high welfare and allow for natural behavior,” World Animal Protection’s Cameron Harsh told me on the sidelines of the Reducetarian conference last year.
Even if indoor systems could become more humane, it still doesn’t sit right with me that an animal would never live outdoors and I don’t think it goes far enough.
As consumers become more “woke” to what they’re eating and how their food is grown, it’s only a matter of time before they also start to turn their backs on the intensive pork industry. I feel sure that many would change their habits like I did if they were also to tour a typical US pig farm.
Livestock farmers are realizing this. In AgFunder’s alternative protein fund, we have investors from the dairy and meat industry; they see their investment as a hedge and acknowledgment of changing consumer demand. I don’t wish to see an end to all pork farming; there are some great producers out there, treating their animals well and managing their farms responsibly. I think there will always be demand for real and humanely-raised pork, but it won’t be cheap; I once bought four pasture-raised sausages in a farmers market in Brooklyn for $13!
So bravo to all the plant-based and cultivated pork companies out there for trying to create affordable pork alternatives to intensively-raised pork, and here’s to more to come, ideally with great nutritional profiles too!
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to represent the opinions or views of the wider AgFunder team.