The True Cost of Organic GMO-Free Pork

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Not all parts of a carcass are created equal. When half of the carcass weight goes to waste because it isn’t a coveted cut of meat, a farmer must inflate cost to cover losses.
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In "The Ethical Meat Handbook," author Meredith Leigh uses her background as a food and farming specialist who has worked as a butcher, chef, teacher, and homesteader, all in search of realistic solutions for sustainable food.

The Ethical Meat Handbook (New Society Publishers, 2015), by Meredith Leigh, seeks a middle ground, arguing that by assuming full responsibility for the food on our fork, and more importantly, the route by which it gets there, animals can be an optimal source of food, fiber, and environmental management.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Ethical Meat Handbook.

This simple table compares total costs associated with raising a pig based on feed type. In the second column, you see costs associated with conventionally grown GMO feed. In the third column, you see costs of conventionally grown, GMO-free feed (while the seed is not genetically modified, the crop is grown with synthetic chemical herbicides and pesticides, and is not required to be managed according to organic standards). The fourth column lists costs associated with certified organic feed, which by law does not contain genetically modified seed and is grown with adherence to standards for environmental and consumer health.

These numbers are based on the enterprise budget of a pork and poultry farm near my home in Asheville, NC. My friends Graham and Wendy Brugh, of Dry Ridge Farm, raise about 150 hogs a year, plus about 1,500 chickens. They also sell lamb. These numbers allow them to sell weekly retail at farmers’ markets and support some wholesale accounts with local butcher shops and grocers. Note that the price per pound of feed is based on the price their farm gets, since they buy their feed by the ton. For those raising pork on the home scale and thus buying feed by the bag, prices per pound will be slightly higher.

In the Notes column, on the first row, you’ll notice a mention of feed conversion ratio. This is an important number in livestock production that refers to the amount of feed, in pounds, that the animal requires to gain one pound of meat. The ideal feed conversion ratio for pork is 3.5:1, meaning it will take you 3.5 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of meat. Note that this ratio can vary greatly, depending on breed, feed quality and herd health. Using ideal ratios in this example, it will take the farmer about 962.5 pounds of feed to take one animal to a finished weight of 275 pounds.

Non-feed costs include equipment for fencing and watering, labor for moving and caretaking and other animal needs. Again, keep in mind that as volume goes up, price goes down. The more animals there are on the ground, the lower the non-feed cost per animal.

Slaughter costs include killing and dressing, which is removal of the animal’s innards. Some organs can be requested, but depending on regulations in your area, or the rules of the processing house, you may not be able to keep organs and blood. The example here omits organ and blood weight, assuming they are lost in the process. This is common in my area. If the slaughterhouse can sell them, perhaps they do, but the farmer can rarely make use of them, as regulations either prevent her from getting them back in the first place, or limit her ability to do any further processing (of blood sausages, salamis and pâtés) without having her own inspected facility.

Thus the final row, processing costs. This is the cost to “cut and wrap” or turn the carcass into chops, sausages and other retail units. This happens at the slaughterhouse, by regulation in my state, or at a facility permitted to further process meat, such as a butcher shop or grocery. The cut-and-wrap cost is one of the highest costs in small-scale livestock production.

In the final rows, you see conclusions regarding total cost per carcass, and then total cost per pound of meat. Note that the cost per pound is based on dressed weight, the weight of saleable meat once the animal is killed, bled and dressed. This is different from the earlier multiplier, the finished weight, which is the production goal the farmer seeks to reach before taking the animal to slaughter.

For this example, I am figuring a dressed weight of 165 pounds, meaning the farmer has lost 40 percent of the carcass during processing. The losses include blood, some bone, all the innards and, in many cases, the head. If the animal is shot with a gun rather than stunned and bled, the head cannot be used, and is added to the waste can.

My hope is that consumers of ethical meat can look at this and begin to see the economic conundrum in plainer view. If the farmer is to make a living off of production, he or she must charge 40 percent more than the cost per pound to wholesale customers, and up to 60 percent more than cost to retail customers. This is the arithmetic used to figure the average range in sale price per pound.

If you’re still with me, consider that not all parts of the carcass are created equal. Per carcass, the farmer can expect to produce 25 lb. loin, 35 lb. shoulder, 25 lb. ham, 25 lb. sausage, 12 lb. shank, 20 lb. belly, 5 lb. ribs, 10 lb. fat, plus feet and maybe head. Some parts of the carcass are in higher demand than others — for example, customers prefer loin chops over leg shanks, so the farmers cannot apply the same price premium for the entire carcass. (You would not pay $7/lb. for feet or back fat). So the markup is higher for meats that are coveted, and lower for lesser-used parts.

This is all designed to permit the farmer an average price per pound on the total animal, which ensures his or her success as a business person.

You can easily see how much of a premium the higher quality feed produces, and how this translates into price. For the farmer in business, options are limited. As any smart businessperson knows, if you cannot turn the cost increase over to the customer, you must limit costs in production. Looking at our table above, the highest costs are in feed and processing, both enterprises that are mostly out of the farmer’s control. Even limiting the non-feed costs will not aid much in the end result, and increasing the number of animals may help some but requires sufficient land (which the farmer may not have).

He probably does not have the land or equipment to grow his own organic feed, nor does he have the capital or desire to build a feed mill (for grinding and mixing feed rations) or develop distribution for the feed once it is grown and milled. The feed mills that do exist are having a hard time selling premium feed in enough quantity to justify a better price, as their own costs in buying, grinding, mixing and delivering grain are also delivering tight margins. You see, feed mills are also small businesses, also trying to strategize about economy and quality so they can survive.

On the processing side, the farmer is up against limitations in regulation and customer expectation. If law dictates that she cannot keep or use the innards, and if the market does not demand blood sausage anyway, she loses a percentage of product. If slaughter practice and regulation does not permit her to keep the animal’s head, and the customer will not buy it either, she loses a percentage of product. If she does not have the knowledge or infrastructure to cut and wrap her own animal, she is forced into paying a premium for cut-and-wrap services, which further gouges her profits.

Where is the answer? There are perhaps a few. Feed cooperatives and tighter communities of farmers and associated feed mills would increase the volume of organic grains sold, potentially lowering prices across the board. Meat cooperatives and tighter communities of farmers and associated consumers could increase the volume of whole animals sold or cut-and-ready meat produced, lowering prices across the board. But the answer that is most readily in reach is you, the enlightened consumer. If you will buy a whole pig or half a pig and butcher it yourself, you will help the farmer eliminate processing expenses. If you will eat delicious pâtés and headcheese, we can make better use of the valuable animal.

Read more from The Ethical Meat Handbook in The Ethical Meat Eater.

Reprinted with permission from The Ethical Meat Handbook by Meredith Leigh and published by New Society Publishers, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Ethical Meat Handbook.