Pork's new sizzle.

Photographer: David Livingston/Getty Images

Beef? Stick a Fork in It

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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There’s this pathetic sign I used to drive by a lot in rural Alabama. It was disintegrating, and tangled in kudzu, but the saddest part was the slogan on it: “Pork Is Health!”

It was clearly the remnant of a failed and somewhat ridiculous marketing campaign for the forgotten meat. And while “The Other White Meat” has proved more durable, it too always struck me as kind of sad and wannabe-ish.

Still, no need to feel sorry for pork now! It hasn’t gained any ground on chicken, which has risen from No. 3 meat in the U.S. in the 1970s to utterly dominant No. 1 today. But as Bloomberg’s Megan Durisin reported earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects  U.S. pork production to surpass beef in 2015 for the first time since 1952.

Pork actually might have beaten beef in 2014, if it hadn’t been for a big outbreak of something called porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. We’ll get back to that appealing topic in a moment, but first, the big picture.

The pork-beef switch has come for reasons of both demand and supply. First, demand: The Pork Board’s health-focused Other White Meat campaign, introduced in 1987, actually did work. By the 1990s, in fact, hog farmers were clamoring for help in selling the parts of the pig that weren’t lean and white. In response, as David Sax recounted in a Bloomberg Businessweek yarn last summer, the Pork Board methodically laid the groundwork for what is now a national mania for bacon. Add to that the arrival of tens of millions of immigrants from Latin American and Asian countries where pork is a big part of the cuisine, and you have the makings of strong demand here in the U.S. Exports have been rising, too, and now account for about 20 percent of U.S. production, up from 11 percent a decade ago. China is especially hungry for pork -- the biggest takeover so far of an American company by a Chinese one was of Smithfield Foods, a pork producer and processor.

The beef industry, meanwhile, continues to battle concerns that red meat is unhealthy, and has been unable to come up with a cult product on the level of bacon. Jerky apparently isn't enough. Beef bacon, anyone?

The even bigger differences, though, may be on the supply side. “Beef just takes a long time,” says Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau. Young predicted pork’s triumph last fall, partly on the basis of such temporary factors as a slow rebuilding of cattle herds after droughts in Texas and California. But the longer time needed to raise beef cattle than hogs or chickens helps explain the diverging long-run trendlines as well.

Basically, hog farming and chicken farming in the U.S. have become indoor, industrial activities. This started with chickens in the 1960s, in the process launching, as Smithsonian Magazine put it a couple of years ago, “a vast national experiment in supply-side gastro-economics.” Giant chicken operations, most with more than 250,000 birds, many with more than a million, churn out meat with staggering efficiency. It now takes just five or six weeks from hatching to slaughter. In the process, chicken has gone from expensive delicacy to cheap, abundant protein source.

Chicken factory farming in the U.S. is centered in the Southeast, and in the 1970s a few hog farmers in North Carolina decided to imitate their chicken-raising neighbors with their own enclosed operations. These were a big success there, soon spread to the traditional hog-raising heartland of the Midwest, and have since made inroads in unlikely places like the high desert of western Utah (the reason being, I think, that there’s no one around to smell them). Most hogs are raised in facilities with more than 5,000 animals, where it takes about six months to raise a pig to slaughter weight.

The beef business also has its industrial side, the giant feedlots where young cattle are quickly fattened for slaughter not long after they turn a year old. That’s much younger than in the past, but is still a lot older than six months or six weeks. Plus, for the first six months of their lives, beef calves live on the range with their mothers and are subject to drought and other dangers. Basically, raising beef still has something in common with actual farming/ranching -- which makes it less efficient than chicken or pork production.

As you can probably tell, I am not entirely comfortable with these developments (and yes, I am one of those insufferable people who buys almost all his meat at the farmer’s market and brags about it). The changes in agricultural technology that have enabled the rise of chicken and the revival of pork have made chicken and hog farmers much more productive than they were before. It is productivity gains that bring economic growth and rising living standards, and these particular productivity gains have made it possible for people to consume chicken and pork at much lower prices than would otherwise have been possible. Yay!

On the other hand, they’ve made it a lot less fun to be a chicken or a pig, and have brought with them major environmental and health concerns. Hog manure runoff is a big problem in several states, tightly packed indoor farms are a breeding ground for diseases like porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, the liberal use of antibiotics to fight or even preempt diseases spreads antibiotic resistance and the meat produced most likely isn't nearly as good for you as the non-factory kind.

I really like pork, so it’s hard for me to root against it. But I’m not sure this triumph is really worth celebrating.

  1. Here is a similar specimen from a couple of counties over.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net