"Here's [a] familiar everyday scene: the American housewife shopping," says the narrator of Pork People Like. The voice-over gives the cautionary play-by-play as the homemaker peruses her supermarket's meat case. "What does she buy? Not the ham slice with all the fat that will fry away in drippings. She doesn't want these pork chops—not enough lean meat. And she's passing up the pork roast with too much fat." As she finally selects a chicken, the narrator intones, "The pork industry has lost another sale." The lesson: Farmers need to start producing leaner hogs.
Pork People Like dates back to 1956, when the hog business was frantically trying to reinvent itself—by reinventing the pig. "In the 1940s, the ratio of fat to lean on a pig was about 50-50, and there were times when the fat was actually more valuable," says Mark Boggess, director of animal science for the National Pork Board. "There was a tremendous demand for nonmeat products from the pig, especially lard. We were even using pork by-products for the war, for nitroglycerine and explosives."
But the war ended, lard gave way to Crisco, and soaps—also made with pork by-products—were supplanted by detergents. A fat hog was no longer profitable. That's when the pig biz shifted its sights from the barnyard to the biology lab. "The fat on a pig is highly inheritable," explains Boggess. "So genetically speaking, once we figured out how to measure the fat on a pig, it was relatively easy to select against it."
By the 1990s, the streamlined hog envisioned in Pork People Like had become the industry standard. The fat ratio was down to 8% to 12%, and hog farmers could purchase biologically superior breeding stock and pig semen from genetics operations like the Pig Improvement Co. The industry's current standard of porcine perfection, an idealized pig named Symbol III, looks like a stretch limo compared to its roly-poly forebears.
There's only one problem: Fat tastes really good—and lean pigs don't. The industry conceded that point, dialing up the fat by 3% to 5% in its newer animals. But why design a new pig when some of the older, fattier (read: tastier) breeds are still available? That's the thinking behind rare- and heritage-breed hog farming, a growing niche that's essentially the pork version of heirloom tomatoes. With several high-end restaurants touting heritage-breed pork on their menus, and new studies suggesting a low-fat diet may not yield the health benefits once thought, the time may be ripe for a backlash.
"There's a lot of pendulum-swinging when it comes to food," says Patrick Martins, cofounder of Heritage Foods USA. "And the pendulum usually ends up swinging back toward a more traditional, historical way of eating. Well, this is how a pig tastes when it's raised the way it should be."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.