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Are American consumers demanding fattier pork?


BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Walk into any Arby’s fast-food restaurant these days and a new item on the menu is quickly picking up a lot of fans. The main reason: porchetta, the fattier version of bacon.

Originated in Italy, the salty and fatty meat product is the main star of one of Arby’s new sandwiches. Porchetta, lean pork loan rolled and wrapped with a thick piece of pork belly, is piled high on the sandwich, which clocks in at 690 calories and 42 grams of fat.

“People seem to like it, a lot,” said Sam Materson, an assistant manager at an Arby’s in Marion in southern Illinois.

And while well-known New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse years ago popularized his saying that “Pork fat rules,” most consumers continued to prefer pork that was pink and lean, not red and fatty.

But the tide may be turning a bit these days, as documented in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “America’s Pigs Have a Body-Image Problem: They’re Not Fat Enough.”

The story notes that a growing number of consumers and “foodies” are demanding more pork belly, cuts of pork with healthy fat back, and, of course, bacon. Bacon consumption continues to grow by an average of 3 percent each year for the past decade.

For the past three decades, hog farmers have bred “leaner” animals to gain the favor of more consumers leery of unhealthy fat and clogged arteries. But these days, particularly in high-end restaurants on the coasts and in bigger cities, diners who think leaner pigs make for drier, less flavorful meat are asking for more greasy bacon, sausages stuffed with supple lard and pork chops oozing with more flab, according to the article.

“People are taking a good hard look at their pork chops,” said New York farmer Mike Yezzi, “and realizing there’s no way to cook this pork chop and not wind up without it being tough.” Yezzi, to meet what he told the paper is a noticeable increase in fattier pork, is now raising more “heritage” hogs such as the Ossabaw Island breed to meet the demand.

Big pork companies apparently are recognizing the trend, and trying to meet the demand, including Perdue Farms, whose Niman Ranch unit advertises heritage hogs.

“Cardiac doctors were against eating pork ... so the pork industry responded to that by genetically beginning to produce leaner hogs,” said Bob Darrell, vice president of retail fresh-pork sales for Smithfield Foods, a top U.S. pork producer that says it has been breeding fatter commercial pigs for the past decade. “Now we’ve done a U-turn. We’re adding fat back into our hogs.”

Consumption of U.S. pork has remained steady for the past four decades, and it hasn’t seen the dramatic increase that chicken has in the past two decades. According to Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, annual consumption of beef, chicken and pork per person totaled 84 pounds, 40 pounds and 56 pounds, respectively. By 2015, the total for each was 55 pounds, 90 pounds and 55 pounds, respectively.

Offering a “leaner” product has been one of the main marketing themes for the pork industry since it started using its “Pork, the Other White Meat” slogan in the early 1980s. Pork officials in Indiana and Illinois said they believe any increase in “fattier” pork will be slight. Producers, they said, will continue to raise the majority of hogs as they do now.

Jeanette Merritt, director of checkoff programs for the Indiana Pork Producers, said, “We do have producers around the state raising ‘heritage breeds.’ But it’s not becoming the entire industry or the industry norm. Indiana pork producers are raising lean hogs to meet demands of consumers. For a few decades, consumers have been asking for lean pork that tastes good. Indiana pork producers feed a diet based in corn and soybean meal to ensure our animals are healthy and lean.”

Jenny Jackson, with the Illinois Pork Assoc., called it a “niche” movement that likely will not change the emphasis on raising leaning hogs that produce less fatty meat.