Hog industry update from Pork Congress

By Matt Reese

Like any other year, award winners were recognized, educational seminars were attended and industry networking took place at the 2021 Ohio Pork Congress — in person. It was a daunting task, but the Ohio Pork Council successfully hosted an in-person event in this month. 

Attendance was limited and there was an online component to the event as well, but Ohio pork industry leaders were very glad to have the chance to gather to learn from experts and each other. 

“It has been a challenge over the last couple of months. We didn’t know if we’d be able to have Pork Congress this year. We have been fortunate with masks and social distance in place that we have been able to get together as a pork industry,” said Ryan McClure, Ohio Pork Council president. “We are one of three states in the U.S this year that actually had a trade show. We have a sold-out trade show again this year. There are a lot of vendors and a lot of business is moving forward here.” 

A wide variety of topics were covered at the event, but the pork industry almost always comes back to the vitally important issue of biosecurity.

“We heard from a lot of veterinarians about a multitude of issues that are going on through the Ohio herd right now, including some PRRS concerns this year and we learned about some general good biosecurity things we can work on,” McClure said.

Porcine reproduction and respiratory system (PRRS) can reduce littler size and increase piglet mortality and lead to respiratory issues in weaned piglets as well. It has been a fairly significant issue in Ohio and in the U.S. herd this year.

Another topic of discussion for the nation’s pork industry in recent months has been worker safety at processing plants. Back in April, workers at processing plants were getting ill with COVID-19 at an alarming rate and there were some related fatalities. This, of course, was a concern for individual processing plants but also livestock producers around the country with animals ready for processing but no available capacity. Massive efforts from the federal government and the livestock industry have dramatically improved the situation for worker safety since that time, said Cheryl Day, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Council.

Among the many executive orders signed in the early days of the Biden Administration was a directive for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to reassess worker safety in various industries around the country, including packing plants. The pork industry as a whole is watching the situation to see how it unfolds. The physical limitations of some packing facilities could lead to significant capacity restrictions depending on the specifics of any revamped worker safety requirements. 

“OSHA is saying they need to go back and look at the requirements in the workplace. One area they are targeting is the packing plants. We did have an issue a year ago and we do not deny that. We have done a lot of a great improvements since then to balance safety and productivity. OSHA may issue an emergency temporary standard that says there has to be 6 feet between employees as a federal minimum and you have to have certain PPE. The states can take it another step as well,” Day said. “If we have too many restrictions at the packing plants and go overkill on this, we could see packing capacity back to 50% and we’ll have less hogs being processed and less pork for your plate and we could have another backup. We’d be back to where we were a year ago with the troublesome supply chain.”

Bryan Humphreys, who formerly worked in Ohio and now serves as the the vice president of producer, state and industry relations for the National Pork Board, was at the event as well and shared some insights into the global role of American pork production.

“China has been very clear that they want to come back from African swine fever and be as efficient as possible as they move forward but we have to also understand that American pork producers are really good at what they do. Overcoming challenges and obstacles year after year continues to give them a competitive edge on the global scale. China may grow and other countries may grow in their production, but the American producers are providing a product that not only consumers in the United States want but the rest of the world is after also. Prior to 2020 we were exporting about 26% of our product. That increased significantly since then,” Humphreys said. “As China continues to rebuild, how are we going to make up for that in a diversified export marketplace? We are looking at places like the Philippines and Vietnam and how we can supply them with the high-quality product they desire. What can we do in places like Mexico and Japan? We are competing with the rest of the world and U.S. pork producers are in a prime spot to do that effectively and efficiently.”

The U.S. pork industry has also been in the unique position over the last year to share lessons in biosecurity with the rest of society. 

“Heather Fowler is on staff at National Pork Board and has been working with packing plants and the CDC to help them understand the biosecurity we use on farms to help prevent some of this disease spread around the country,” Humphreys said. “It has been an opportunity for American pork producers to help educate the general public about biosecurity.

“Addressing the multitude of new issues we had never faced before gave us the opportunity at the end of the year to look back and understand how we can fix some of these challenges moving forward that will benefit pork producers not just today or tomorrow, but for a long time down the road.”

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