March 20, 2012

"Tell what you do. Do what you tell."

MARCH 20, 2012: Today was "pork" day for the mission. An early departure from Amsterdam to a Dutch swine farm about 3 km from the German border. Farmer Jan van Schijndel was joined by a representative from VION, a Netherlands-based farmer-owned cooperative that is among one of the largest meat processors and distributors in the European Union. They are the European leader in fresh beef and second in pork.

A wide shot of the new pork production facility at
Jan van Schijndel's farm
On January 1, 2013, new regulations will go into effect prohibiting the use of sow gestation crates. When the UK passed similar legislation in 1999, pork production in that country fell by 50%. The effect on EU pork production with the pending legislation is uncertain, but at least 15 EU states say they will not be in full compliance by 2013. Some project a 10% drop in production, roughly equivalent to the percentage of pork the EU exports.

A closer look at one of the stalls in Jan's new facility.
However, others point out the increase in pig production due to genetics and management, which has increased the annual production to 28 from 25 pigs just a few years ago, with some achieving even higher production rates. An increase of 10% in the number of pigs born to the same number of sows would effectively maintain status quo.

The cost to convert barn space to meet the new regulations will cost a 100-sow unit some 150,000 Euros (nearly $200,000 US). It is expected that many farmers, especially those approaching retirement age, will simply close up shop since they cannot see a return on that investment in their remaining years. Adding further challenge, the cost of production in the EU is driven higher due to the ban on GMO feed sources, which in turn leads to higher feed prices.

The "Good Farming" star logo is proudly
displayed on Jan's new building.
Jan built a pork facility that conforms to the new animal space regulations. Sawdust floors allow the animals to root around as comes naturally to them. Normal hours of daylight are provided. And, as specified, each animal has at least one square meter of space available (compared to 0.8 previously).

His farm participates in the "Good Farming" program, essentially a certification program that allows his pork to carry a seal in the grocery store. While this does not necessarily bring a significant premium, he believes it is a difference maker and will increase in value over time.

Jan has also built a viewing area that overlooks the new facility, complete with posters and other information outlining his methods of handling animals and promoting the animal welfare programs he is instituting. He invites visitors to stop in and view his farm (even unannounced!)...and he has about 150 people per week stop by, from school groups to media to interested travelers. He is very open and transparent about what he's doing. "Tell what you do. And do what you tell" is his motto.

The development of animal welfare regulations has come from NGOs within the Netherlands and throughout the EU. And consumers have also become concerned about how their food animals are produced. But Jan believes that collaboration and cooperation are necessary in order for pork producers to be involved in the conversation about changes that govern their business. According to Jan, this is a changing consumer marketplace and pork producers must find ways to adapt and change in order to stay competitive. It's clear that he has embraced this change and is quite proud of what he is doing.

A 2.5-hour bus ride to Emstek, Germany where we visited a VION pork processing facility. Built in 1992, this facility has 650 employees and has the capacity to process 3.6 million pigs per year or 70,000 per week. Currently, they are processing 45,000 animals weekly but are working to get to full capacity (two shifts) in all departments of the plant. While this is VION's largest pig slaughter facility in Germany, there are several other competitors who do as much or more—up to 120,000 pigs per week.

Members of the team visit with the
manager of the VION pork production
facility in Emstek, Germany.
This VION plant is sourcing 73% of its live pigs within 50 km of the plant...and all pigs are part of a Quality Assurance program. Italy is their largest market, with Denmark second. (In spite of the fact that Denmark is one of the world's largest pork producers, they export huge amounts and thus create a need for imports to meet in-country demand.) Company wide, VION produces beef, pork, poultry and lamb. They also have an "ingredients" division which processes and markets hides, gelatin, offal and other co-products. A division called Basics does custom mixing of ingredients for use by other processors.

NOTE: The EU bases its pork price on slaughter weight, while the U.S. uses live weight as that basis. Farmers at the VION plant are paid on the percent of meat and the carcass weight. VION uses a couple of technologies to assess the carcass, including ultrasound to identify the yield from the animal.

We had the unique opportunity to tour the entire facility from the final product all the way back to pig delivery and slaughter. While no photos were allowed, we were impressed with the efficiency of the operation. VION has special lines that prepare pork to specification for Korea and Denmark, two nations that have specific product and processing requirements.

Tomorrow we get back to the grain business with discussions on the 2012 supply and demand situation on feed grains in the EU.  We'll also be meeting with the managing director of the International Sustainability Carbon Certification program in the EU, with an emphasis on ethanol plant certification within Germany's sustainability certification regulations.

A couple of hours of free time before boarding the plane to Munich and then on to Budapest, with a late arrival tomorrow night.

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