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World Pork Expo: Hog Heaven - 2002-06-17

"Hooray for the red, white, and blue" was the patriotic, flag-waving theme for this year's 14th Annual World Pork Expo, held June 6 to 8 in Des Moines, Iowa, in the American Midwest. The theme was underscored by a visit and speech from President George W. Bush. But the "white" in 'red white and blue' could have been a reference to the pork industry's popular marketing slogan, "Pork, the other white meat," a reminder of pork's fierce competition with poultry and beef for a bigger share of the consumer meat market. While the world Pork Expo was full of fun and patriotism, the event was also full of producer concerns over falling U.S. hog prices and sluggish pork exports.

"It's a great honor to be here. It's a great pleasure to get out of Washington. It feels like I'm kind of gettin' closer to home, to be with people who make their livin' on the land," told Expo participants. "I'm honored to be with the good folks who supply our country with food and the good folks who live the values of the farm."

Pork producers, thought to be generally pleased with the Bush Administration's tax policies, gave the president a very warm reception. Most of Mr. Bush's remarks were about U.S. efforts to deal with the continued threat of terrorism, but the president also said he wants to generate more export opportunities for pork. "We're not going to treat agriculture as some kind of second class citizen when it comes to international trade agreements… and I understand the need to fight for foreign markets so that when? We're good at something, we benefit. And we're good at growing hogs. And we ought to be selling our hogs all across the world"

Iowa hog farmer Craig Christensen believes Mr. Bush is right to look to increased exports as a way to boost the earnings of American pork producers. And Mr. Christensen says promoting high-quality U.S. pork exports should be relatively easy given the recent difficulties many foreign producers have had with livestock diseases and meat safety problems. "And I'm pretty proud of the fact that we, I think, produce the highest quality safest product in the world.," says Mr. Christensen. "I mean, knock on wood, we don't have some of the issues they have over in Europe or Asia with their product… when we have over one point eight million hogs going through the [food] chain in a week, we better make sure some of them are going overseas."

Industry analysts say U.S. pork prices are low because there are simply too many hogs on the market - experts point to both increased hog production and the inability of the nation's slaughterhouses to process those hogs fast enough. Don Benson, a pork producer from the Great Plains state of South Dakota agrees with President Bush that more exports would help. "He talked about the export thing and I guess we been hangin' our hat on that for a long time," he says. "We do raise hogs cheaper than anybody in the world and we need to move on that…on the other hand, I sit there in the state of South Dakota and watch an awful lot of hogs comin' out of Canada."

Mr. Benson refers to the recent flood of imported Canadian hogs that many American producers believe is also driving down U.S. hog prices. The South Dakota farmer says it's a trade issue that stirs deep resentment and needs to be addressed.

Today's pork trade is a global affair, much like the four-piece Mexican band that entertained at a special Pork Expo luncheon for international visitors. More than twelve hundred of the Expo's registered attendees were pork producers, packers or traders from outside the continental United States. One of them was Mark Ross. He exports live purebred breeding pigs from Winnipeg, Canada to markets along Asia's Pacific Rim. He says he comes to the World Pork Expo every year to find out about industry trends and meet Asian visitors. Mr. Ross says the hot topics this year have been meat quality, and how the farmer can produce and deliver exactly what the meat processors and consumers want. Ben Rara is the president of a company that distributes veterinary medicines in the Philippines. He says that like many of the foreign visitors to this year's World Pork Expo, he came hoping to learn how recent advances in pig genetics research could make swine production more profitable. "It's the new breed of pigs that you are developing in this country. Definitely these are more efficient pigs. These are leaner pigs and these are the pigs that reach market much, much faster than the older breed of pigs," says Mr. Rara. "So these are definitely new advances, which we'd like to bring to our country."

Amanda Rameriz manages a large pork production facility in Puerto Rico. She says the market is changing and she came to the Expo to try to learn how her company can change with it. Meanwhile, she says conditions are improving dramatically for producers back home in Puerto Rico. "The price is better. The market is better. We are selling pigs bigger. Before we [sold] pigs about 140-150 pounds [63-68 kg]. Now we are selling pigs about 200-250 pounds [90-113 kg]. [And getting] A better price."

The World Pork Expo is also an event for consumers. Organizers take the opportunity to give away some of the goods at a massive daily barbecue luncheon. During the three-day event, visitors feasted on more than 35,000 servings of pork… and just about everybody takes time to watch another popular attraction at the Expo: pig racing.

Marci Hedrick, who runs a farm animal zoo in Kansas, brought her Racing Pig Show to the Expo. She made a special note of the Expo's international visitors, many of whom also stopped in to see the pigs run. "Under the pig race tent there are absolutely no strangers," she says. "We are all friends and we all speak one language and that's Howdy and Suey, That's how you call a pig, you know "su-EEE!" and we just want everybody to have a great time."

Ms. Hedrick says the pigs also enjoy the races. They go four at a time around the small oval track, which is covered in woodchips. Why do they do it? Ms. Hedrick says that pigs, like people, are happier when they have something to do. But U.S. pork producers hope that in their race for increased exports and a recovery in hog prices, they won't be just running in circles.