30-Plus Years of Pork Industry Milestones and Issues

Neil Dierks, CEO of the National Pork Producers Council
( Farm Journal's PORK )

Editor’s Note: In this final segment of the cover story in the March issue of Farm Journal’s PORK, Neil Dierks recalls some of the highlights enjoyed and challenges faced during his career in the pork industry. With the present trade situation, there will be more to come.

From the time Neil Dierks joined the staff at the Iowa Pork Producers Association, to his present role as CEO of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), he has seen issues come and go, and come again in a different form. Here are some of the most memorable.

> The mandatory pork checkoff: “When I was with Iowa Pork, the national checkoff was coming but basically there was no guarantee of any funding returning to states,” Dierks says. “Iowa went to the legislature and created a state mandatory checkoff bill through an appropriations process that passed in the last waning days of the legislature. And it was all protected. It’s so ironic, because I ended up as CEO of NPPC. Ultimately, Iowa supported the national checkoff.”

> Pseudorabies eradication program: “I was there when the U.S. decided to go forward with an eradication program,” Dierks says. As difficult as it was (producers didn’t want people coming onto their farm) he says the relationship between the industry, APHIS and the state vets, was about as good as it could get. “Now, fast forward
20 years, from the PRV eradication effort to Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus.” Collaboration has improved as a result of PEDv and the secure pork supply initiative will help, but Dierks says the veterinary community and diagnostic labs are a critical component to future programs.

> H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009: This was a very difficult time for the industry, Dierks says. “We haven’t talked to people about our systems on food—you can’t get H1N1 from eating pork. A representative of the government looks at every pork carcass when it’s harvested.”

> Application of technology: Three-site production, segregated early weaning, barn filtration, the recognized value of manure, and other technologies are now common on pork operations. Dierks is a strong believer in research and science; these technologies and others in the pipeline are critical to the industry’s success.

> Animal ID/premise ID: The pork industry took the lead on this issue long ago. “Our industry and our producers stepped up,” Dierks says. Other industries balked, but pork producers knew it was important in the face of a disease outbreak. That mindset “came back in spades with the
outbreak of high pathogenic avian influenza in Iowa and Minnesota,” he says.

> Growth of exports: Exports have grown tremendously in the past 20 years, driven in great part by getting access to markets for U.S. pork. “There has been a lot of work by many groups to promote pork, but the work to get access to those markets in order to sell product has been the responsibility and charge of NPPC, whether in Washington, D.C., or in other capitols,” Dierks says.

> Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome: “It’s interesting to see that everyone is still looking for solutions. We have new technology of potentially a PRRS-resistant pig. We have other genetics companies doing work on disease resistance through classic swine breeding, too. We also have a vaccine, and take a look at filtering—that’s the standard now on sow farms.”

> Introduction in marketing pork—The Other White Meat: This campaign was significant, Dierks says because it positioned the industry in a completely different way. It also became a highly recognized symbol. While the sale of this logo and trademarks to the National Pork Board has drawn criticism from activist groups, the campaign was a watermark moment. On the other hand, Dierks feels the industry needs to do a better job of mending the disconnect between consumers and the production chain.

“The marketplace is so different than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s so competitive,” he says. “That’s why we’re seeing people market non-product-specific qualities of product. We need to continue to evaluate how we sell product and we create margin.

This list barely scratches the surface and Dierks says there’s always something new.

“Take a look at labor in the industry and how that leads us into immigration reform, and environmental issues are always at the forefront.”

He’s already looking at what might be on the horizon.