NZ pork industry on the back trotter

NZ pork industry on the back trotter

nz pork industryIn response to consumer concern about quality and animal welfare, New Zealand Pork has set about making a raft of changes to the way the meat is produced locally.  But local producers are increasingly being gazumped by cheaper, imported product with far less stringent quality control.  Can NZ Pork convince the public to ‘Buy Kiwi Raised’?

New Zealand’s best bacon has recently been judged to have come from Christchurch.  Ellesmere Butchery’s sugar-cured middle bacon, according to judges, stood out from the rest for its stunning raw presentation and the fact that you could “tell there had been a lot of love and care applied to it,” according to head judge Anita Sarginson.

Love and care might be the extra ingredients that made Ellesmere’s bacon great, but another factor that probably helped in the product’s overall appeal was the fact that it came, 100 percent, from New Zealand pigs (it had to, given the title of the award is Best Bacon - 100% New Zealand Bacon & Ham Competition 2012.) 

It’s a difference that is very real to local producers, who feel they are undercut by cheap pork imports into the country that come from nations that simply don’t have the kind of animal welfare restrictions on them that New Zealand pork producers do.  In some cases, like Canada, growers both have less stringent welfare laws and active subsidisation of the industry.

Over 800,000 kg of imported pork – most frequently making its way into the shopping basket through processed goods such as the kind of cheap luncheon sausage and ham found in generic supermarket packets – is now eaten by Kiwis.  That’s some 45 percent of all pig meat eaten in New Zealand – and it’s a figure that grows year on year. 

The problem is made all the more frustrating for the local producer when New Zealand consumers repeatedly indicate they are concerned about animal welfare and that such concerns influence their buying habits.  However, demonstrably this is not true for the bulk of shoppers, who continue to be guided by price.

nz pork industryMaking New Zealand pork products first choice for New Zealanders is the goal of NZPork, the industry level body representing the country’s producers.  As most pork produced locally is eaten in New Zealand (unlike other meats, where exports claim the bulk of production), the focus on the domestic market is critical.  Pork is the meat of choice in many other countries, but in New Zealand, the product ranks third.

It’s a problem that requires tackling in two parts.  First, grow pork’s share of the consumer shopping basket, and second, ensure that consumers overwhelmingly choose New Zealand-made pork, even if it comes at a price premium.

Whereas consumers have been heavily influenced by bad publicity about the local pork sector in the past – ushering in stricter animal husbandry standards a few years back – it’s now good publicity that needs to imprint itself on the minds of the public.  The future of the billion dollar industry depends on it, which is why ‘Being the Best Little Industry’ was the catch-cry of the NZPork Conference in Wellington last month.

One of the most recent fights this ‘Best Little Industry’ faces is trying to repeal a Government decision to allow pork meat that has not been heat-treated first to be sold in the country, a move local producers feel might expose the industry to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), a flu-like virus in pigs that could decimate the high-quality positioning of New Zealand Pork. 

It’s a decision that has infuriated the local industry, especially at a time when imports are driving pork prices lower than ever before, and two years after the Animal Welfare (pigs) Code of Welfare 2010 put a slew of new rules and regulations around pork production.

One of the main upshots of those new rules was that gestation stalls are being actively phased out.  From December this year, mated sows and gilts must not be confined in dry sow stalls for more than four weeks after mating, and from December 2015, they must not be confined in dry sow stalls after mating at all. 

To further address consumer concerns, NZ Pork implemented a whole of industry welfare audit in 2010 called ‘PigCare’ that is supported by Pig wholesalers and a prerequisite for permission to labelled as ‘100% NZ Pork, Ham or Bacon’.

Other practices mark out the New Zealand product as different. The use of antibiotics by the local industry is modest; they are used only when necessary for the health and welfare of the animal, and are used under veterinary supervision to target specific conditions. New Zealand standards do not permit their use ‘to make animals grow faster’, unlike some overseas.

 New Zealand commercial farms maintain a high health status by having very strict on-farm biosecurity procedures. Hygiene is maintained scrupulously and people access is minimised; likewise introduction of new animals. Pigs are purchased only from herds of high health status, and strict quarantine and acclimatisation procedures are followed – similar to border control. De-population and repopulation exercises are undertaken to eliminate specific endemic diseases. Herds are vaccinated, and herd health status is monitored independently through AsureQuality. Commercial farmers have planned, regular on farm visits from their veterinarians, most of whom are specifically pig-focused.

 They are regimes that add considerable cost to local pork production – while none of the imported pork from USA, Canada, Australia, Europe or China has to meet any of these standards.

The challenge for New Zealand Pork is to make the superiority of the New Zealand food production chain for pigs ‘top of mind’ for consumers.  At a time when meat consumption overall is on the decline, it’s a hard ask.  One way the industry is proactively getting pork into trolleys is to have hired an agency – OgilvyAction – that is working on a campaign that aims to implant the idea in the minds of household cooks that Thursday night is ‘pork night’.

Whether Thursday night will dish up pork chops to more and more Kiwis, whether consumers will be inclined to choose home-grown quality over price with their pork products; whether indeed the industry will be able to absorb the cost of doing business as well as fight a rear-guard action against imported product is yet to be seen.   On quality alone, as the Best Bacon and Ham awards regularly show, the nation’s pork production industry is certainly in with a fighting chance.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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