Adam Henson on choosing the best British pork

British pig farmers have suffered in recent years. But, as Adam Henson reveals, high welfare standards and traceability are bringing cautious optimism.

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When it comes to Sunday lunch, you’d have to go a long way to beat a piece of roast pork with all the trimmings. And what about crispy bacon, cured ham, sausages and paté? No wonder it is one of the world’s most popular meats, with a farming history going back at least 6,000 years.

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Across the centuries pigs have served three purposes: to eat waste and unwanted food, to fertilise the land and to provide meat. Until the 20th century, it was common for people to keep pigs in their gardens, allotments or orchards. That’s the origin of my local county breed, the Gloucestershire Old Spot. To this day it’s known as the orchard or cottager’s pig, even though it’s many generations since the breed consumed the kitchen waste and the windfall apples of the Berkeley Vale. Over time, legislation and modern lifestyles have meant that pigs are now mostly found on farms and smallholdings.

High standards

It’s well established that the idea of pigs being dirty, unhygienic animals is a myth (though calling someone a ‘pig’ is still a term of abuse), yet concerns about their health and welfare linger. In fact, British pork is produced to some of the highest standards in the world thanks to a whole raft of regulations that farmers have to adhere to, covering every aspect of the way the animals are kept, moved, fed and watered.

In addition, the government issues guidelines on everything from the density of light in pig pens to the amount of noise on farms. Giving pigs growth-promoting hormones isn’t allowed, while antibiotics can only be administered in certain cases and only under the direction of a vet.

When I was growing up, most butchers’ shops displayed a diagram of a pig with the various pork cuts and joints outlined; from the head (now out of fashion) all the way to the hock and the back trotters. In between there are familiar cuts such as loin, belly and leg. In fact, country folk used to say that you could use every part of a pig except the oink.

A good butcher can supply an array of cuts for grilling, frying, roasting or slow cooking. Pork can also be processed to create various products. Gammon, ham and bacon are cured – an ancient method of salting the meat to preserve it – while charcuterie was also a way to keep meat longer in the days before refrigeration.

Herd decline

The UK pig herd is currently at its smallest for more than 60 years, according to the latest livestock census. There are around 4.5 million pigs farmed in the UK today. That’s two million fewer than at the turn of the millennium – the industry is now roughly the size it was in 1952.

The National Pig Association (NPA) says the decline in pig numbers can be put down to one piece of legislation and two animal health outbreaks: the UK ban on sow stalls in 1999, which was swiftly followed by devastating bouts of classical swine fever and foot and mouth. When animal diseases such as those are discovered, a farmer’s entire stock has to be destroyed, as anyone who saw the pyres during the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 will never forget.

The rising cost of production and decreasing profits have led some people to leave the industry. One of the big problems is the cost of feed. Pig nuts are expensive and many farmers had to provide their animals with even more food during this year’s unseasonably cold spring.

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But despite the worries, there is still optimism in the industry. In 2012, more bacon pigs went to the abattoir than at any point in the previous decade, British pork exports to the Far East are significantly up and the horsemeat scandal has seen renewed interest in home-reared, traceable meat.