Steve and Becky Kerns are Iowa pig farmers on a mission to increase the popularity of high quality pork.
The Clearfield pork producers and pork genetics marketers want to convince Americans to eat pork more often at home and in restaurants. The best way to do that, he believes, is improving the meat’s flavor and consistency so consumers will regularly choose pork at the meat counter or in a restaurant.
“Pork is the most popular meat in so many countries, and we really need to keep increasing its popularity here in the United States,” said Kerns, a Taylor County Farm Bureau member and former president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “We need a greater consumer pull-through, with consumers demanding higher quality pork because they like the taste.”
Kerns, who has been working to improve swine genetics for a half century, is convinced that a key to increasing demand is improving taste through pork genetics. “I worry that the push to make pork lean maybe has gone too far and we need to do more work on flavor and consistency,” Kerns said. “The whole marketing push is important, but you need a high-quality product to keep consumers coming back.”
That often means bringing in genetic traits from traditional or heritage breeds of pork that have more marbling and a darker color. Those genetics can come from long-established breeds, such as Berkshire or Duroc, or even more exotic lines, such as the Mangalitsa line, a woolly pig breed originally from Eastern Europe, he said.
Kerns owns International Boar Semen based in Eldora, which sells semen around the world. In addition, he and his wife, Becky, operate Mangalitsa Estates, which markets gourmet pork to high-end restaurants and specialty grocers.
The message about the importance of improving the taste and consistency of pork is being heard throughout the U.S. pork industry, according to Steve Larsen, assistant vice president of science and technology for the Iowa-based National Pork Board. “There is a feeling that the pendulum went a little too far toward leanness, and we are hearing consumers say they want pork with a little more flavor,” he said.
Bacon demand sizzles
A clear example of that, Larsen said, is the sizzling demand for bacon. “It’s full of flavor, and consumers are saying that’s what they want,” he said.
The push to improve pork taste and consistency is part of the pork industry’s long-term strategy to grow pork demand, Larsen said.
The industry, working through the pork checkoff, has also successfully worked to change the cooking guidelines on pork. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service used research from the pork checkoff to determine that whole muscle cuts can be consumed safely when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a 3-minute rest time.
That change, Larsen said, is allowing consumers to taste more of the good flavor in pork.
In addition, the pork industry worked to change the names of pork cuts to bring more consistency at the meat counter and in restaurants, Larsen said. The new names of the cuts, such as porterhouse chop or ribeye chop, are helping consumers consistently find the cuts they prefer, he said.
“The ribeye chop is the same cut at Hy-Vee as it is at Fareway or Costco or a store anywhere in the country,” Larsen said.
In addition, the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service is expected to propose an updated voluntary pork grade later this year, Larsen said. Those updates will also help consumers consistently find the type of pork that they want, he said.
Steven Lonergan, a meat sciences professor at Iowa State University (ISU), said that pork consistency is important because it’s something that both retailers and consumers notice. “There is certainly very good pork out there, but it is not always as consistent as we need it to be,” he said.
A balancing act
Still, pig raisers always need to balance the push to improve taste and meat consistency with other drivers, including the cost of production and feed efficiency, Lonergan said. “It all depends on the market you are aiming for,” he said.
Many niche producers, like the Kerns, are finding a good market for premium pork cuts from chefs and specialty grocers, Lonergan said. “There are certainly a lot of consumers who are seeking out those premium products and are willing to pay for them,” he said. “It’s not a market for everybody, but certainly some producers are doing well with it.”
A pork genetics focus
Kerns, who was a finalist for the National Pork Board’s Pig Farmer of the Year in 2015, started working on pork genetics as a 4-Her and later developed into a seedstock operation that supplied swine genetics to local farmers. He studied at ISU under renowned swine geneticist Lauren Christian and after college began working with purebred breeding lines, including Hampshire, Duroc, Large White, Landrace and Berkshire, supplying genetics around the world.
The Kerns bought International Boar Semen in 1991 and have continued to build the purebred business. In 2007, they added Mangalitsas, which have a bright red muscle coloring with marbling similar to Japan’s famous Wagyu beef. Today, Kerns Farms operates the second largest Mangalitsa herd in the United States.
In addition, Kerns operates a farrow-to-finish operation on his farm near Clearfield to raise and market the premium Berkshire pork, both to chefs and retailers, as well as directly to the public.
“We work a lot with white-tablecloth restaurants and specialty grocers in Chicago and New York,” he said. “I spent a lot of time building those markets, and it’s worked out well.”
Demand for the Mangalitsa pork is strong, and many chefs like meat when it is crossed with Berkshire or Duroc, Kerns said. “That way you get a leaner meat that still has a very good flavor,” he said.