Thirty years ago, not many people could have imagined pork would today be among the leanest meats available.

Thirty years ago, not many people could have imagined pork would today be among the leanest meats available.

How and why pork changed took center stage on Friday, July 12, at the Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals, District 7 meeting in New Ulm.

Steve Enderle of Crystal Valley Co-op in Mankato, addressed a group at the Oak Hills Living Center in New Ulm.

Titled “The Power of Pork,” the speech by Enderle highlighted how farmers have changed how they raise pigs to meet consumers’ demand for lean, nutritious and safe food.

Enderle noted that obesity rates have doubled in adults and tripled in children over the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The latest CDC survey shows that almost 36 percent of U.S. adults are obese and 17 percent of U.S. children are obese. That means 78 million adults and 12.5 million children are at an unhealthy weight.

“The consequences of obesity are considerable,” Enderle said.

Studies show that as obesity rates increase, so do medical costs.

“It is estimated that the United States spends about $160 billon on medical costs directly related to obesity–that’s twice what we were paying only 10 years ago, and those costs could double again by 2018,” he said.

Enderle gave several examples on how farmers who raise pigs are trying to help by proving a lean, nutritious and affordable food.

A USDA study found pork tenderloin is as lean as a skinless chicken breast and the American Heart Association has certified it as a heart-healthy food.

“Today’s pork is a prime example of how farmers have been working for years to find way to do more with less while raising a healthier food, providing better care for the animals and protecting the environment,” Enderle said.

The most powerful tools in changing pork have been selective breeding, nutrition and animal health.

“Fifty years ago, most pigs were raised outdoors in small shelters with straw bedding. Weather extremes, disease and predators took a toll on pigs’ well-being and health,” Enderle said.

Today, while there are several different types of modern housing systems in use, farmers have largely moved pigs into barns to better protect them from extreme weather and disease and to provide a clean and comfortable growing environment.

“These barns along with new management practices have resulted in healthier and leaner pigs,” Enderle added.

Enderle went on to say that because pigs overall are healthier, sows are giving birth to more piglets per liter. And because more piglets are getting a stronger start, they grow bigger and healthier and provide more meat than ever before, doubling per year since the 1960s.

“I want to emphasize that first and foremost, farmers have a moral obligation to care for their animals,” Enderle said. “These pigs are a farmer’s livelihood so it just makes good sense to take the best care of them they possibly can. And most importantly, its the right thing to do.”

Today’s modern barns allow farmers to provide for each pig’s individual needs, ensuring a more constant level of care and nutrition. Feed and water can be carefully monitored to meet each pig’s growth and development.

The barns are also designed to serve the unique needs of pigs through each phase of their growth cycle by including breeding and birthing units, nurseries and finishing barns where pigs grow to market weight before they are sold. Each barn’s climate is constantly monitored to keep the pigs comfortable with plenty of fresh air.

“Farmers know that raising healthy pigs helps ensure healthy and safe food and that’s why farmers follow strict rules to prevent pigs from getting sick or suffering,” Enderle said. “But when pigs get sick farmers are careful about the way they use medicines and the animals are treated based on what veterinarians tell us to do and we follow strict FDA rules.”

Enderle noted that animals cannot enter the food supply until their systems are clear of antibiotics. Samples of meat are routinely tested by the USDA to ensure that withdrawal regulations are being followed.

Because the quality of U.S. pork has become so good, demand for it from foreign consumers has increased significantly during the last 25 years. According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, in 1986, approximately $2 from every hog sold came from international consumers, today that figure has risen to more than $60 for every hog sold. And, the U.S. pork industry’s number one export customer is the world’s most demanding consumer–Japan. Sales to Japan accounted for 30 percent of total U.S. pork export value.

“These dollars flow back into our local community every time a pig farmer opens their wallet to buy cars, groceries, clothing and other local services,” Enderle said.

The pork industry is also working with scientists to develop tools that will help farmers continue to reduce their environmental footprint in the areas of land and water use, as well as air and carbon emissions.

Steve Enderle of Mankato, is a swine specialist for Crystal Valley Co-op in LaSalle, which produces feed for over 150,000 pigs a year. Steve has been with the company for 10 years. Prior to that, Steve sold breed stock and managed the early wean nursery for Lieske Genetics in Henderson. He has been a member of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association for five years, and is also a member of the Watonwan County Pork Producers Association.