LETTER FROM ONTARIO
MBM-Free Pork, a point of differentiation, a cut above the competition—at the expense of the farmer

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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August 5 , 2004: Last year, Ontario Pork, in an unprecedented decision, ordered “that effective March 1st, 2004, hogs marketed for slaughter by Ontario (pork) producers must be meat and bone meal free from birth.” Last week, Ontario Pork held a public consultation on the merits of this change. The Christian Farmers Federation was at the hearing to raise some important issues.

Meat and bone meal – MBM for short – in pig rations became an issue when Maple Leaf Pork, Ontario’s largest pork processor at 45,000 pigs per week, asked its contract producers to remove MBM from their market hog rations. Maple Leaf told the hearing that they were simply responding to requests from customers in Japan-- in the shadow of one case of mad cow disease in Canada.

Ontario Pork’s decision to get involved with a ban on MBM in all market hog rations was well-intentioned – find a way for pork producers to be compensated for such an initiative. There was general agreement at the hearing that MBM-free rations cost two to three dollars more per hog. Some farmers may be willing to sign onto a costly point of differentiation without financial guarantees. But why should they?

Maple Leaf Pork is treating a sector that is made up of dynamic entrepreneurs like a supply chain that it owns. It appears that hog contracts can be used to erode the role of farmers in the marketplace and turn a value chain into a supply chain. What has happened to farmer choice? Why should farmers be left with the bill for retraining, new technology, more complex management practices and additional operating costs?

MBM-free rations call attention to a disconnect in the food chain. Consumers do not always make food purchases based on nutrition or value for money. Sizzle and hype, trust and a farmer’s face on it, all play a role. Branding strategies capture these consumer values through focus groups and consumer surveys. Meanwhile, back on the farm, food production is rooted in sound management practices and good science. Changing farm management practices and reducing the importance of good science in response to what could be a branding fad poses high risks for long-term public appreciation of on-farm practices.

At the hearing, a spokesperson for Quality Meat Packers, Ontario’s second largest pork processor, supported the ban. They’ve already made the ban part of the story, they tell their customers. MBM-free pork positions the Ontario pork herd and the pork value chain a cut above the competition. MBM-free pork is part of the story that keeps their foot in the door.

It‘s great to be “doing it better,” but it’s not sustainable without a return for farmers.

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