Can you spot the impostor Berkshires above? After reading this blog post you won't have a problem. Scroll to the bottom for the answer.
I had a very eye opening experience yesterday. However, the story actually began last week which is where I will start. I received a lead on some Berkshire pigs that a man was wanting to sell. Normally, I only buy pigs from one of three farms that I have established excellent relationships with. Additionally, they have invested in the highest quality stock as well as agree to produce piglets to our humane and natural standards. So when I called on these pigs this man had, I drilled him with questions. What kind of feed had they been started on? Where did the breeding pair come from? How had he been treating them? Had he clipped tails and teeth? Had he been using antibiotics? The man, a farmer, assured me that he had been feeding them grain grown on his own farm, had not docked tails and clipped teeth, and that the breeding pair we were both papered Berkshires. Everything seemed good and the price was right so I agreed to meet him to have a look at the pigs as well as check out where/how he had been raising the pigs.
We set a time to meet (yesterday). When I pulled up, I couldn't see any pigs anywhere. I figured they were in a pen behind a barn or something like that. I met the farmer and after exchanging greetings he asked if I was ready to see the pigs. He led me over to livestock trailer where he had the pigs "ready to be loaded". He acted as if he was offering me a convenience but all I saw was a red flag. I asked where he kept his other pigs especially his breeding stock as I wanted to see their characteristics. He mentioned that they were kept at another place and then said he had already sold the sow. Another red flag.
Next I looked inside the trailer. I saw ten black pigs and one white pig. However, not one of the black pigs was a Berkshire. They looked like Hampshire pigs (a commercial breed of pigs). The white pig was what is called a "Blue Butt" which is the coloring you get when you cross a Hampshire with a Yorkshire. I asked about the white pig, and the man laughed and replied, "Can you believe that? He is out of the same litter!" I told him that none of his pigs were Berkshires and that I wouldn't be able to buy his Hampshire pigs. He argued that he had "papers" proving that they were Berkshires. I told him that he could show me all the papers he wanted, but that his pigs were not Berkshires. And that perhaps, whoever sold him the pigs had sent him with the wrong pigs to go with his papers. I pointed out all the distinguishing features of the Berkshire and showed him how his pigs differed. I then explained that one of the unique things with Berkshire pigs is that nearly all of their identifying characteristics are recessive traits. For example, Berkshire pigs have six white points consisting of four white "socks", a white tail, and a white face. Poland China pigs have the same markings but have floppy ears instead of erect ears (additionally, they have a thinner coat than Berkshires). Berkshires have a short snout and a curved back unlike commercial breeds that have an unnaturally straight back. They also don't have the defined hams and muscular tone that commercial breeds have. Many breeders have successfully bred Berkshires to look more like commercial breeds in this regard, but we prefer the old fashioned body type. Interestingly, the commercial breeds are becoming more difficult to breed naturally as a pigs anatomy isn't designed to reproduce with huge hams and straight backs. If a Berkshire pig doesn't have all of the above characteristics, then they are not a purebred Berkshire.
Of course the body shape and appearance isn't the reason that chefs in any fine dining restaurant prefer Berkshires (Kurobuta) over any other breed. The reason their preference is the Berkshire is because of the incredible quality of pork. Berkshire pork has three characteristics that set it apart from the rest. First, is the marbling of the meat. Berkshire pork is finely marbled throughout; even in traditionally "dry cuts" like the ham and loin. Second, the deep red color of the meat is unique in appearance and flavor. It is a reminder that this breed hasn't been bred to look like chicken which has been the goal of commercial producers for decades. Berkshire or Kurobuta pork is definitely not, the other white meat. Lastly, is the pH level of the pork. Berkshire pork has the lowest pH level which leads to all kinds of wonderful cooking qualities and moisture retention that chefs can explain much better than me. But I will add that this is why commercial pork is injected with brine solution at the stores. These characteristics are also recessive traits which is why cross breeding doesn't give as much of the Berkshire benefits as many would assume. We know this because of experience and later research (when the pork didn't turn out as well as we had hoped). : )
I think I finally convinced the man that he didn't have purebred Berkshires, maybe some Hampshires that had been crossed to a Berkshire. I was frustrated that had already sold the sow and some other pigs as purebred Berkshires. This means that somebody else is now raising and selling pigs as purebred Berkshires when in fact they are far from Berkshires. Berkshire pigs take longer to reach a butcher weight, consume more feed, and produce smaller litters. This adds a significant amount to our production costs. Of course we feel it is well worth it as I am sure many of our customers do as well. Part of our farming philosophy has been to ethically and humanely raise premium quality meat at a price that is affordable. In other words, while we could probably charge more for our pork and beef, we don't because we want average families to have a viable alternative to the meat raised under traditional commercial practices. Raising cross bred pigs is an easy way to lower production costs. However, it also lowers the quality and flavor of the pork significantly. Sadly, I know the person who bought these pigs. They have been marketing their pork as being the same as ours only at a lower price. A price that isn't sustainable for long term business. They are new to raising pigs even though they portray themselves has having been doing this for years. I am sure that they are convinced that they have purebred Berkshires and are not intentionally being deceitful. The lower price they are able to charge is simply reflective of the lower input costs of the crossbred pigs they raise.
There is little I can do about people who advertise something other than what it actually is whether they do so intentionally or not. Of course it is a little concerning that enough of them could ruin our little niche by offering a hybrid pig as a purebred Berkshire at a price that is lower than what a purebred pig can we raised for. However, we will worry about that if/when that day comes. In the meantime, we hope to educate our customers with lots of information so that they know what to look for if Berkshire pork is what they are after. Hollie reassures me constantly that we have the most loyal customers of any business she has ever seen. That is certainly true. Our customers have been so good to us. Maybe there really is something to that whole Karma thing. : ) Besides there is more to a pig than just purebred or not. There is also the treatment and diet of the pig that play equally distinguishing factors in the quality of the pork. For those who would like the real deal and not an impostor pig you can order here. : )
Answers to the pictures at the top of the page:
First pic: Hampshire
Second pic: Poland China
Third pic: Berkshire