Treble Ridge Farm
Raising Pigs

If there’s one thing we get really evangelical about, it’s CERTIFIED ORGANIC meat – especially when the meat comes from animals that are raised primarily on grain, like pigs and poultry.  Many buyers seem to consider “natural” meats the equivalent of organic produce.  We do know many producers of natural meats in Maine who do offer a product that is truly a huge improvement over industrial supermarket meat in terms of animal welfare, but all too often the biggest difference is merely a few grams of subtherapeutic antibiotics, a nice label, and a price that is somewhat higher than the supermarket’s but attractively lower than ours.  So what’s so special about an organic pig?

Agricultural FactsFeed.  The pigs raised for natural pork are fed conventionally raised grain, mostly corn and soybeans.  About 80% of the corn and 90% of the soybeans raised in the United States are genetically modified, and most of the rest is either certified organic or raised for the “identity-preserved” GMO-free food-grade market.  Most of the GM corn and soybeans are “Roundup Ready” and are treated repeatedly through the growing season with atrazine, a non-selective herbicide that, while less toxic than some other synthetic herbicides, is hardly benign.  For example, studies have found that atrazine levels equivalent to those common in water bodies in corn-growing regions of the United States will turn male frogs into females.  Corn is especially vulnerable to a wide variety of insect pests, which under conventional systems are also treated with dangerous chemicals.  Finally, the heavy use of soluble (petroleum-based) fertilizer in the corn belt is largely blamed for the infamous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

We are not trying to imply that the chemicals involved with conventional feed grain production make conventional or natural pork dangerous to eat.  If significant traces of these chemicals were found anywhere in the animal, it would be in the organs and fats rather than in the muscle meats that most people eat.  However, these substances have a very real effect on the people and environment where these crops are grown.  Children of conventional farmers have higher than usual rates of cancers.  Agricultural chemicals do not stay where they are wanted: they end up in the water, in the soil, and in any natural areas near the farms, where they affect wild animals and beneficial insects.  Feed grain crops take up a lot of agricultural land in America.  If you want that land to be managed responsibly, please buy meat raised on organic grain.

Outdoor Access.  Organic hogs are required by federal law to have year-round outdoor access (they are unfortunately NOT required to be on pasture, although ours always are during the growing season - in addition to our organic certification through MOFGA we also maintain certification with Animal Welfare Approved to indicate that our hogs' living conditions exceed those mandated by the National Organic Program).  Small, local producers of natural pork that actually raise everything that goes under their label often do provide good outdoor access to their animals.  With that exception, though, a pig raised for “natural” pork may never have seen the light of day.  Federal labelling laws do not require outdoor access for animal products labelled as “natural”.  Many brands – even local brands – of natural pork buy animals from multiple farms with varying standards of care (and we have had cause to visit enough hog farms in the state to know that all too often the standard is quite low).  Be aware that some of these brands are misleadingly labelled as “Such-and-Such Farm Natural Pork”, making it look like a single-source product when it is not.

Third-Party Certification.  When we tell you how we raise our pigs, you don’t just have to take our word for it: the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a USDA-accredited organic certification agency, says we’re telling the truth.  So does Animal Welfare Approved, which has been rated as the strictest third-party certifier of animal living conditions.  We fill out an inches-thick stack of paperwork for them every winter, detailing every aspect of our farm operation, and during the growing season each organization sends out a trained inspector to verify that our assertions are accurate and that our practices meet national organic  and AWA standards.  It is true that the NOP standards are the “lowest common denominator” for organic farms, but at least there IS a lowest common denominator that is documentable and verifiable – which is more than can be said for the unverifiable claims of “natural” meat labels.

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