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Originally published February 5, 2015 at 8:56 PM | Page modified February 8, 2015 at 10:59 AM

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High on the hog: a new breed of ‘silky’ pork

This pork-to-Japan pipeline is a prime example of how the global marketplace shapes North Carolina far beyond the potent Research Triangle Park.

/ The Raleigh News & Observer (TNS)


LA GRANGE, N.C. — The squealing piglets were born in late January at the Quinn Sow Farm, inside a row of white and silver barns at the end of a dirt and gravel lane about an hour southeast of Raleigh. The barns stand in an open field near the town of Faison in Duplin County, No. 2 in the nation for hogs.

Nearly eight months later, salesman Yoshihiro Sugawara walked into a Tokyo chain restaurant called Ootoya and ordered a dish of sliced pork with steamed vegetables.

The story about all it took to deliver the thin slices of tender pork from a North Carolina farm to his chopsticks starts with two brothers, Bob and Ted Ivey, whose breeding and feeding have built a pig with premium cuts that have a bit more fat, a deeper color and a sweetness even machines can measure.

The Iveys are part of a weekly race against time and circumstance to deliver the pork fresh — never frozen — from barns east of Raleigh to the world’s largest metropolis. It has become an unyielding effort to penetrate the demanding Japanese marketplace, where pork is consumed with a passion akin to North Carolinians and their barbecue.

It’s not easy or simple. In the past year, the Iveys confronted a frightening virus that killed thousands of their piglets. They now are watching Pacific trade talks and economic jitters in Japan.

This pork-to-Japan pipeline is a prime example of how the global marketplace shapes North Carolina far beyond the potent Research Triangle Park. Late last year, in a decadelong trend, pork from North Carolina jumped ahead of tobacco as the state’s top direct export to Japan — topping $250 million.

North Carolinians no longer manufacture as many tables, towels or bluejeans as they once did. But the world buys the state’s food, which generates jobs and income. That has helped cement agriculture as a leading state industry that accounts for almost one of every five paychecks.

Plenty of the hog industry’s focus has been on last year’s nearly $5 billion purchase of Smithfield Foods by a Chinese group. It raised concerns about sending U.S. food technology abroad and, to a lesser degree, that Americans would eat possibly unsafe meat from a foreign land. Actually, the Chinese want American pork, too, and they are poised to ship in more from North Carolina this year than ever.

The Japanese, with middle- and upper-class incomes and steady appetites for protein, are prized customers. Japan will buy about $2 billion in U.S. pork this year, making it far and away the No. 1 export market for American hog farmers.

“Japanese consumers are very finicky, very rich and they demand quality,” said Dermot J. Hayes, an expert on the pork economy and a professor at Iowa State University. “So the people who export to Japan, they export a very high-value product. And that returns a lot of money.”

Modern farmers

Bob and Ted Ivey are modern-day farmers, which means they spend a lot of time looking at spreadsheets. They’re in conference rooms more than they are in pigpens.

The Ivey brothers run a pork operation, Maxwell Foods, that will produce more than 500 million pounds of meat this year. They easily discuss the intricacies of DNA and vaccines. They speak with reverence about their on-site laboratory, which employs molecular geneticists and two veterinarians. They like to talk about calibrating feed for hogs as weather patterns change.

They were always this way.

The Iveys grew up in Elroy, where they helped their parents produce tobacco, eggs, corn, wheat and soybeans. The area today is marked by barbecue and fighter jets; it’s close to where U.S. 70 rolls past the Wilber’s and McCall’s restaurants near the runway at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Ted, 65, went to N.C. State in the early 1970s and left with degrees in poultry science and economics. He was about to take a corporate job with a seed company when he changed his mind.

“My father had a long talk with me one day under the tobacco-barn shelter,” he said. “He talked me into coming back to the farm. And then Bob did the same thing. I don’t know exactly how it came down with him and my father, but I guess it was a given at that point that Bob would come home, too.”

Bob, 60, had studied chemistry at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and considered working in the up-and-coming Research Triangle before he also went home.

It was the mid-1970s, and interest rates were high everywhere except for small-business and farm deals backed by the government.

The Ivey brothers ended up with a pair of low-interest loans and a shared idea to diversify the family farm with swine. “Didn’t want to just come back and do what my father had done,” Ted Ivey said.

Tech-aided decisions

In 1976, the Iveys formed a genetics company and began obsessing over the details of hog breeding. They quickly rejected a long tradition of judging hogs by how well they showed on the fair circuit.

Instead, they connected with a specialist at North Carolina State University and used early versions of personal computers to make the decisions. They wanted to measure and rank hogs by where it mattered most: in the marketplace.

“Back then, there were many, many farms, and all the genetics was at the State Fair,” Bob Ivey said. “The judge would say, well, this pig is better than that pig and so forth and so on, which didn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Not very science-based,” Ted Ivey said.

They wrote software to chart precise traits. How fast did a hog’s back fat grow? How many piglets were born alive to a sow? How much did the babies weigh after 21 days?

They prized a calm sow that resisted disease and produced a strong litter with quality meat. These are common measures now across the industry, and the foundation for millions of dollars in sales.

Meanwhile, pork was becoming a big business in North Carolina.

In the 1990s, hog farming mushroomed into an industrial-scale production, with hogs growing indoors at a relatively low cost. The concentration of animals raised widespread concerns about harm to the environment, forcing a moratorium in North Carolina on large new farms in the late ’90s.

By then, nearly 9 million hogs were in place —— along with packing plants necessary to slaughter them. The state became No. 2 in the country in hog production, behind Iowa.

Target market

Japan was a natural target market. Unlike developing nations, fresh pork was already a regular part of meals there. One of the most popular is tonkatsu, a cut of boneless loin that’s breaded, fried and drizzled with a sauce.

“Just like tuna sells for tremendous prices in Japan, pork has a special place in their diet and culture,” said Kelly Zering, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at N.C. State University who has studied the pork economy. “This whole idea of food as not just sustenance but as cultural treasure and custom is part of that market.”

Japan has well-known regional pork companies, too, each producing meats with their own followings.

But the dwindling number of Japanese farmers can’t meet the demand, so Japan has had to rely on the rest of the world. Almost half its pork is now imported.

As hog farming boomed, the Maxwell family looked to the Iveys to set up a hog operation within the umbrella of the family’s interests, which include extensive poultry operations and a feed company.

The swine arm became Maxwell Foods, and the Iveys started in from scratch in 1989 and built it into the 11th- largest pork producer in the country. It employs more than 600 people and has a network of about 175 farms in eastern North Carolina.

Jim Maxwell, who led the family into hog operations, said the Iveys’ deep knowledge about hogs set them apart.

“They had the reputation as being good producers, with good genetics, and they’re Wayne County people that we knew,” he said. “They had the reputation of being very progressive producers, which was something we were very interested in. You look at those pieces, and they all came together.”

“Out front”

In 2007, the Iveys invited Temple Grandin, an influential expert on animal safety, to visit their farms.

Grandin, an animal-sciences professor at Colorado State University, said the Iveys worked differently.

“The handling of pigs in this industry was just awful,” Grandin said. “A lot has changed — it’s different now than 20 years ago. They were out front.”

They had always practiced “pen gestation,” or group housing, meaning their pregnant animals weren’t kept in cramped crates. Workers, not machines, feed those animals. Other companies now say they will do the same.

The Iveys said it was good business, too — their data showed the animals performed better in better conditions.

All along, the Iveys and Maxwells began calibrating their pork for Japan’s tastes to fill Sumitomo’s orders.

They worked to produce more flavor. They worked for more sweetness and juicy fat in the right places. The Ivey pigs began to produce more marbling, like in a steak.

“White streaks of lightning,” Ted Ivey calls it.

In October, he watched a group of his hogs processed at the packing plant. He put his face down close to the end of a loin, which was marbled and dark pink.

“Man, look at that,” he said. “Just what we want.”

It’s what Japan wants, too. Today, it’s called Silky Pork.

Roughly 300 of their boars will produce about 1.3 million market hogs this year in North Carolina. Of those, the cuts from about 200,000 will make it to Japan as Silky Pork.

The other hogs in their process end up mostly in the U.S., raised without the special formula of feed and distributed like any other as hams, ribs, bacon and sausage.

Specialized lines

Smithfield Foods runs specialized lines at its packing plants to cut the hogs just how the Japanese want. They make a pork belly with the rib meat still attached, for example, and a smaller cut from the Boston butt that isn’t available in the U.S.

At a Smithfield plant in Clinton, the Silky Pork is always processed first, when the plant is the cleanest. At Tar Heel, home to the country’s largest packing plant, there’s a separate area for Japan.

Sumitomo pays more for the Silky Pork hogs, about 20 percent per head. But he sells the product at a premium.

Stores and restaurants in Tokyo highlight how the breeds are mixed together to make the meat. Yongenton, these menus and displays say. Four breeds of pork.

Some Japanese grocers have posted a picture of Bob and Ted Ivey, wrinkled, tanned and smiling on a farm near Goldsboro.

In early 2011, SC Foods commissioned a taste test, using a machine to gauge for sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory tastes.

Silky Pork matched up with Japan’s well-known and highly regarded homegrown “black pig” breeds.

And the pork is selling, up 40 percent in the past four years. Sales in Japan are expected to grow at up to 20 percent annually, even in a tough economic climate, said Taiki Teramoto, who handles the chilled-pork business for SC Foods.

Flowing to Tokyo

Thousands of special hogs shipped from North Carolina to Japan each year are born and raised on farms in a region southeast of Raleigh roughly the size of Delaware. But trucks eventually haul the pigs to a Smithfield Foods packing plant, where they scamper into a metal chamber at the end of a 5-foot-wide chute.

The chute is where Silky Pork begins flowing to Tokyo across 11 time zones. For the pig, it’s the end. For the Japanese, it’s the start of an all-out effort to ensure that loins and shoulders reach someone’s plate without ever being frozen. The clock expires in 45 days.

This is where a snorting hog is transformed into a global product — the subject of fierce, continuing tariff negotiations and the domain of international companies that kill, slice, pack, haul and ship it.

At the end of each week, loads of Silky Pork leave Clinton, a county seat farm town 65 miles southeast of Raleigh, in refrigerated eighteen-wheelers. Every truckload carries in stacked white boxes of meat worth $100,000 to $150,000.

“At that point, they’re pretty much gold bars to us,” said Raymond Minott, an export manager who tracks the loads for Sumisho Global Logistics.

But they’re treated like hot potatoes. Two-man crews drive in shifts for three days to truck the boxes to California, where the pork is loaded onto a container ship at the port in Oakland. The boxes float past Alcatraz, slip under the Golden Gate Bridge and head out to sea.

About 10 days later, they land in Tokyo Bay, where the load is yet one more arrival at the world’s most profitable destination for U.S. hogs.

Today, those simple boxes of pork, marked “Smithfield” in English and Japanese, are also part of an unfolding global trade drama. The U.S. pork industry wants to increase its flow to Japan, but the Japanese pork industry is fighting to protect its local farmers.

U.S. pork interests are lobbying for a broad new trade agreement that would knock down barriers in Japan and other Pacific Rim markets, including Chile, Peru, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was the big trade deal of the 1990s. This one is called the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it would cover how 40 percent of the world’s economy trades. Previous trade deals have had lasting impact on North Carolina, gutting textile and furniture jobs while boosting pharmaceutical-related industries.

“Free trade is really, really important,” Bob Ivey said. “We’ve got to get a big volume of pork out of this country, or we really take it on the chin.”

Pork producers in the U.S. say they will not support a broad deal without a “fully open” Japan.

Howard Hill, president of the U.S. National Pork Producers Council, made the point in a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the lead negotiator on the TPP.

“The elimination of all protection on pork in Japan,” Hill wrote, “is the most important commercial issue ever to face U.S. pork producers.”

Producers in Japan

Masaru Shizawa sees it differently, and he speaks with as much passion.

He runs a pork operation in Ayase, a hilly rural area an hour southwest of Tokyo. Statues of pigs decorate his home and office, where he hands out copies of his new book, “Food is Life,” with reflections on 50 years in the pig business. Across the street, hogs fill 16 barns in a muddy field.

Shizawa is chairman of the Japan Pork Producers Association, which carries significant political clout in Japan, just as big farm interests do in the U.S.

In an interview, he expressed a nationalist argument, emphasizing that Japan should not depend too much on others for food.

“It is very important,” he said. “We Japanese pork producers, this is our identity, and we have a promise with the Japanese people. We need to keep our domestic self-sufficiency.”

Japan produces about 55 percent of its pork. That figure would plummet if the agreement is adopted without protections, he said, as U.S. pork, which is cheaper to produce, grabs market share.

“Japanese culture would be destroyed completely,” Shizawa said.

The Iveys and other North Carolina farmers want to keep or expand their markets, which are built on delicate relationships with Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods and Sumitomo in Japan.

“There needs to be a way to work out a balance there, and that’s a challenge of the TPP,” Bob Ivey said. “That’s the whole stumbling block for the negotiations. Should there be some level of support allowed for their local industry? We’ll see.”

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