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Antibiotic-free pork production not without challenges

Question is will consumers pay more

By Gary Gunderson

gunder@agrinews.com

ST. PAUL -- The plus to raising antibiotic-free pork is higher market prices, but the drawbacks can be severe to a pork operation's bottom line, according to the director of health assurance for Premium Standard Farms.

Butch Baker, whose employer raised 53,400 antibiotic-free hogs in the past 12 months, said the hogs had higher mortality rates, less gain and cost an average of $1.23 more each for vaccinations.

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About 30 percent of each group of hogs that enters the program won't produce antibiotic-free meat, either because of death or leaving the group when antibiotics are administered.

While prices for antibiotic-free pork is good now, Baker said he's afraid there may be no price premium in the future, as the public talks about wanting safer food but probably won't pay more for it.

On the other hand, the company is in business to grow the kind of pork the public wants, so Premium Standard will have to find a way to grow antibiotic-free hogs profitably, he said at last week's Allen D. Lemen Swine Conference.

Baker said pork treated with non-therapeutic antibiotics is just as safe to eat as antibiotic-free animals. But public opinion doesn't seem to agree, he said, despite evidence that many antibiotic-resistant organisms have come from non-livestock foods.

"Public opinion may be more important than science right now," said Baker. "It's not going away, it's not a fringe issue and could be ahead of animal rights.

"We're not happy with how we're doing,'' he said. "We have good demand for the product, especially on the East Coast, where several customers are asking for it. We'll have to learn. We're committed to animal welfare, but we have higher animal mortality than we'd like."

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