Where did this little piggy come from?

With the recent detection of the MRSA superbug in samples of supermarket pork, Anna Turns asks why now, more than ever, we should be sure of where our food comes from.

Small-scale pig farmers take so much pride in the food they produce, and rightly so. Happy pigs produce tasty, succulent meat but there’s still huge demand for cheap, mass-produced meat at supermarkets. This week, a livestock strain of the livestock superbug MRSA was found in 3 out of 97 samples of meat from British pigs, sold at Asda and Sainsbury’s. With a potentially lethal risk to public health if not cooked properly, could Britain be on the brink of yet another meat scandal, or is this just an expected by-product of intensive farming?

Mike Ford, owner of Pen-y-lan Pork in Wrexham, North Wales, rears 140 saddleback and Gloucester old spots, selling meat purely through farmers markets, food assemblies and food festivals. “People should look for full traceability and quality whilst supporting UK producers,” insists Mike who explains that a lot of supermarket pork is imported from the EU, particularly Denmark. He says that British pork producers get a raw deal: “Look at the price of pork against how much it costs to feed an animal, and you can understand why many producers go out of business. It just isn’t sustainable.”

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This MRSA scare reminds him of the horsemeat scandal which shed light on what meat actually went into supermarket chains. “I don’t think MRSA is tested like it should be. But if you support your local farmers markets and Food Assemblies, you are talking to the producers first hand – any issues you can go straight back to them,” says Mike, whose primary objective is good animal husbandry. “If you buy from UK producers with outdoor-reared pigs rather than caged ones, it shows in the flavour of the meat also.”

97% pigs reared in the UK are not in open air. Be warned, the label might say ‘free-range’ but legally that can still mean living in a barn. “Our huge point of difference is that we are genuine field-to-fork, which is a rarity and the pork that we farm lives outdoors all its life,” says Sarah-Jane Clegg who runs Porcus (the Latin word for ‘pig’).

Clegg packed in her corporate career ten years ago to buy a moorland farm near Todmorden in West Yorkshire with her partner, Nat. “We had got so out of touch with what we were eating,” explains Sarah-Jane. “Going to places like Borough Market to eat good food become a highlight! We both realised how much we loved pork and proper bacon butties, so we started by rearing two pigs, then sold one and feasted well off the other one.” Since those small beginnings, their award-winning business has grown and they now farm 160 rare breed pigs.

Because Porcus farm rare breed pigs, their meat is naturally slow-grown. “Our pigs don’t mature until they’re a year old – they were bred to be hardy so they need time to get fat, especially when running freely outside.” By comparison, most commercial pigs go to slaughter at 20 weeks, some at just 16 weeks.

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In terms of supermarket meat, many customers demand cheap meat, but farmers like Sarah-Jane believe that this comes at a price so the MRSA scare should not be a surprise. “MRSA comes down to hygiene and cleanliness. The practices that are being used in pig farming need to be efficient enough to destroy the superbugs.

In my mind, hygiene is part of welfare and these animals were not reared under the hygiene levels that they should have been. If they are all contained together and one animal gets ill, they all get ill very quickly, so this is a direct result of intensively reared meat,” she explains. “This will keep happening until people stop demanding meat at ridiculously low prices. Intensive farmers only engage in these compromised practices in order to meet demands.”

Porcus adheres to organic rules, and because their pigs live outdoors, they rarely get sick, whereas blanket use of antibiotics is commonplace on intensive farms. High welfare continues through to death too. “We take our animals to a family-run pork abattoir four miles away, where they are treated respectfully. Slaughter is quick, between four and seven seconds but bigger slaughter houses often gas animals which takes up to 90 seconds. Finally, all our animals are hand-butchered so we take away things we wouldn’t eat ourselves such as lymph nodes and sinew, and we make products we want to eat ourselves,” says Sarah-Jane proudly.

Good food has real value, and it helps to keep us healthy, so perhaps it’s a case of changing priorities and thinking more in terms of quality not quantity. Be empowered, make informed decisions and treat yourself to artisan sausages or a traditional dry-cured bacon butty. Savour the taste, safe in the knowledge that positive changes in our consumer behaviour can make a huge difference.

About

Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree from Oxford University, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Week in September.

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