Leaner hogs led to big growth for Smithfield Foods

Published 7:07 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

I have always found the pork industry fascinating. Partly, I suppose, because we raised a few hogs as a cash crop when I was a child, but mainly because of its impact on Smithfield, Isle of Wight and Surry, which has been huge.

No hogs are raised locally now, and with the kill operation in the Smithfield plant permanently shuttered, the smell of hogs bound for market has disappeared. It’s not a smell for which we’re terribly nostalgic, though for decades it was jokingly called the smell of money. And it was.

Watching the evolution of the plants over the decades since Joseph W. Luter III returned to Smithfield and took command of Smithfield Foods in 1975 has been a fascinating and continuing source of news.

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And none of the developments at the company were more striking than the changes that were bred into the hogs that are the basis for the company’s products. 

Two years ago, I wrote a series of four Short Rows columns about the origins of the Smithfield slaughter houses almost a century ago, and as part of the research for that series, spent about an hour on the phone with Luter, asking him to recall important elements of the history that his family — and he, in particular — have been so much a part of.

Luter said that during his years at the company’s helm, none of the changes was more dramatic, nor more profitable, than the intensive breeding program that began in the 1990s and led to the vertical integration of the company, from breeding to slaughter of their own animals.

One simple fact drove decisions from the outset of that change. The company wanted to get the fat out. And it did.

When I was a kid, we hauled Hampshire hogs to Smithfield Packing or Gwaltney, depending on the price that week. We aimed to sell them at 210-220 pounds. Hogs didn’t change a lot from then until the company began breeding and raising its own. That 220-pound animal was pretty standard.

When a traditional breed hog such as the Hampshire was processed, the company was left with 30 pounds of lard — fat cooked down and congealed. That’s 13% of the live weight of every animal. Now, I love biscuits made with lard and chicken fried in it, but lard never was a high-profit product, and as health consciousness grew, hog fat and the lard that it produced became less and less desirable.

The breeding program that Smithfield Foods undertook dramatically changed all that. According to Luter, the upshot was that by the mid-1990s, a 240-pound hog (the size of animals slaughtered was also increased as more bacon, loin and other fresh products became important) produced only 8 pounds of fat. It was a phenomenal change, from 13% of live weight to 3%.

The difference, Luter says, was sellable — and profitable — meat.

To get there, Foods had turned to England, historically one of, if not the most, successful pork breeding country in the world. English breeders had been working on developing lean hogs for years, and Smithfield Foods bought the results of that research. The company leased a huge jet to fly its new animals to the states and begin breeding a herd of what became known as the “lean generation.”

Initially, they got carried away with breeding out the fat. The hogs that emerged had so little fat that it was difficult to cook the meat.

The breed was tweaked, the meat again became more flavorful and Smithfield’s hogs produced far more sellable pork than anyone else’s. The result, Luter said, was the company’s profit growth during the next three decades.

Back in 1991, when the program was just beginning, Foods joined forces with Carroll Foods of North Carolina, which became the breeding partner of the company. Smithfield Foods’ Robert Manly was project head and talked enthusiastically during an interview about the genetics involved, of nucleus herds and modern methods of measuring body fat that were being used.

The bottom line was that these folks weren’t slopping hogs anymore.

As that interview ended, I asked Manly what impact the breeding program would have on Smithfield’s legacy product, the salt-cured and aged Smithfield Ham. He said quite candidly that the reduction in fat wouldn’t be good for old-style hams.

Turns out it didn’t really matter. A gradual change in meat texture wasn’t noticed by most of those who continued to enjoy old-style ham.

But getting the fat out sure changed the company.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.