When a new disease — known as PEDV —turned up in the U.S. hog industry in May and threatened to kill whole litters of piglets, the National Pork Board quickly responded with $450,000 in research funding.
A fast-track review process put funds in U.S. labs in two weeks, said Paul Sundberg, the board’s vice president for science and technology. Normally, it takes months for the board’s volunteer committees to decide research priorities.
“On those committees, we work hard to get the best cross-section of producers in the country that we can get,” Sundberg said.
That’s because the board’s work is intended to benefit the entire $20 billion U.S. hog industry, he said. However, not everyone agrees that’s how the research priorities work out.
The Pork Board gets its money from a mandatory National Pork Checkoff program, which farmers contribute to every time a hog is sold. Last year, the program raised $83 million for its core programs: research and education, promotion and consumer information.
While only about 9 percent of the annual budget goes to research, the findings can become the backbone of educational materials and training programs for producers and can contribute to marketing approaches.
Sundberg said small-scale producers sit side-by-side with big company representatives on committees for animal science, swine health, environment, animal welfare and food safety. Some perennial research topics include salmonella, swine flu, environmental impact and feed efficiency.
But the pork industry has changed significantly since the mandatory checkoff began in 1986.
Iowa hog farmer Paul Willis said at that time, he supported it. But since then, hog farming has consolidated.
“With the change in the hog business, there aren’t really very many individual, independent, hog farmers these days,” he said. “So I think primarily the promotion and the money is used for promoting industrial pork.”
Willis is the founder of Iowa-based Niman Ranch, a producer group that uses traditional outdoor housing rather than large confinement barns and generally favors smaller-scale production of specialty breeds, including Berkshire pigs.
John Mabry, an animal science professor at Iowa State University, was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Pork Board to figure out the best feed recipe for those pigs.
“This particular project was aimed at looking at this Berkshire genetics as a little bit different genetics than the commodity pork,” Mabry said. “If we’re going to try and create the right nutritional program for them, we’ve got to have certain pieces of information in order to do that.”
But even with research like Mabry’s, Willis said he is disappointed in the checkoff. Niche producers like him don’t really see much benefit, he said. Yet all hog farmers pay 40 cents into the program for every $100 worth of hogs they sell.
Back in 2000, a narrow majority of hog producers voted to end the mandatory checkoff. But after a series of legal actions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, determined it would stay.
“There was a lot of effort that went into this and we actually won the vote,” Willis said. “And then it didn’t matter.”
Willis doesn’t feel that what benefits the broader pork industry necessarily helps his business.
The Pork Board’s Sundberg said some recent research topics – such as antibiotic use – correlate with public concerns and media attention, but that doesn’t drive the agenda.
“We’ve been funding research, for example, on euthanasia and sow housing for 15 years,” he said, referencing topics that animal rights activists recently have pressured pork producers on.
The industry has worked to improve its image, but Sundberg said his team vets any messages that his colleagues in marketing propose.
“We’re the department that’s responsible for the things that are said. They’ll take those research results, and they’ll massage [them] to understandable language for consumers, for the public,” he said. “But then we take a look at it back again.”
Sundberg said the science must support the message. With about 9 percent of the budget going to research each year, science is neither the top priority of the pork board nor the biggest player in swine research funding.
But as with the PEDV research, it can provide critical information. Even as the research projects were being set up, the Pork Board began distributing information about using biosecurity to reduce the spread of the virus. And Sundberg said that while most research projects run for one year, those receiving the emergency funding for PEDV work are expected to provide frequent updates and to have some results in six months.
“We want to make sure there’s a lot of collaboration, a lot of timeliness and a lot of reporting on this,” Sundberg said.
This story originally aired as part of Under the Microscope, a weekly program about science, health, and technology in mid-Missouri.