My Dad has been out of the hog business for about 10 years now. He and Mom still live on the farm, rent the cropland and a few acres of pastureland to a neighbor.
Dad recently got a letter from county officials asking him to complete an application form to register his feedlot, pinpointing waterways, tile outlets, the well, etc. A county feedlot ordinance requires the registration.
Not a big deal in this day and age. But, for a retired pork producer/dairyman who had raised and educated four kids on 160 acres, it was bothersome.
"What ever happened to the right to farm?" he asked. Shaking his head, he added: "It sure isn't like it used to be."
It sure isn't.
Accountability is the operative word here. And, to be sure, it's not limited to concerns on the environmental front.
In fact, I sense we're edging ever closer to what I refer to as "the end of anonymous production" in this industry.
The day is fast approaching when you will not be allowed to drop a load of hogs at your packer's receiving pens, simply leave without a second thought, and wait for the check to arrive.
The public won't allow it. Pretty soon, your packer won't either. Some already don't.
And why would consumers be sensitive about the safety of their abundant food supply? Turn on a TV or open a newspaper and the answer will be obvious. Like it or not, in the race to greater accountability, food safety will be outpacing the environmental concerns. And, like it or not, you're about to be drafted into the food safety corps.
Major packers felt the heat turned up a notch on January 26 when they were required to initiate a new meat and poultry inspection program called HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points). Many already had comparable programs in place, but it's no coincidence that on the heels of the federal government's efforts to prevent contamination of meat products, packers are telling producers they intend to add another layer of accountability.
This is not shocking news. Packers have been encouraging producers for several years to enroll in the Pork Quality Assurance program. Some have even paid premiums for hogs from PQA Level III certified herds.
And, in recent months, we've been hearing more and more about producers signing packer contracts. Some estimate half of the hogs are committed to packer contracts. The number is expected to grow beyond 60% by year's end. Often, those contracts contain some verbiage that makes PQA Level III certification a prerequisite to the contract.
Let's see - initiation of HACCP, a push for PQA Level III, more packer-producer contracts. Coincidence? I don't think so. The packer wants to know who he's dealing with and what he's buying.
Some packers have drafted a "letter of guarantee" for producers to sign, guaranteeing their hogs are not in violation of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act. Again, not a big deal if you're following the Pork Quality Assurance guidelines.
Not so many years ago, packers were paying premiums to producers achieving PQA Level III status. That will change as PQA Level III becomes the minimum for doing business, for securing a market for your hogs. Soon, non-qualifiers will likely experience discounts.
In January of next year, the HACCP program extends to the next tier of packers - probably encompassing pretty much everybody you're likely to sell hogs to. What are the odds that they too will establish PQA level III as a minimum standard? Such accountability signals the end of anonymous production.
"But, they can't identify each and every hog carcass as it progresses through the processing system," you argue. True enough. The slap-tattoo identification system works pretty well, but as processing advances, individual identification - and traceback ability - is lost. But, considering the huge economic burden of a product recall on a supplier, you can bet they're working on it.
It's the next logical step to taking American pork to the next level. Most packers with some type of quality buying program already have a kill sheet file on your hogs. For those holding a packer contract, I'd bet the packer has already reviewed your genetics, production methods, feeding programs and your recordkeeping system.
Sure, it will be a few years before every pig has a bar-coded eartag, an implanted identification chip, or a computer chip attached to the gambrel hook identifying him through the processing chain. But it's coming. The technology already exists that will help find your lost Fido or FiFi if you've implanted your pet with an identification chip.
Can we justify the cost? Will the American or the World customer even bother to ask you to? More likely, they'll expect you to make the right choice, the choice that will reduce risk to as near zero as you can get.
Progress? Food safety is not a debatable issue.
The responsibility for a safe, wholesome pork product doesn't end with your shift. It holds from the point of conception to the point the consumer places those pork chops on the dinner table. No one gets off easy. No one can remain anonymous.