New trend toward purebred meats

April 24, 2009 7:29:20 PM PDT
Is grass-fed organic meat not good enough for you? The next big food trend may actually be a flashback to what your grandparents ate. It is called heritage meats, and it's rapidly gaining popularity.

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At the TLC Ranch east of Watsonville, it's not the thousands of organic egg-laying chickens that are attracting attention, but the pigs who are grazing nearby.

"It's a whole lot more like a wild animal because it's living outdoors at least," says rancher Jim Dunlop.

They are heritage pigs, and Dunlop is among an increasing number of farmers who are trying to bring back heritage breeds.

Heritage animals are closer to what people ate more than a century ago than what you pick up in the supermarket today. Many grocery store meats are the result of years of human intervention, as ranchers tried to maximize the amount of meat they could get from an animal.

Unlike most large-scale farms where pigs are fed grain and locked up in pens, heritage pigs are from traceable lineages and are free of hormones and antibiotics, getting most of their nutrients off the land they graze.

"It gives you a moister, more flavorful, just a better tasting meat," says Dunlop.

Dunlop sells his pork at Mountain View's weekly farmer's market. However, consumers are snapping up heritage meats around the bay.

"The pork actually has porky flavor, unlike something you might get somewhere else that's not a heritage animal that has been bred to be very lean -- it doesn't have much flavor at all any more," says Steve McCarthy, owner of Prather Ranch.

Meat lovers can't get enough of the heritage meats sold inside San Francisco's Ferry Building. Prather Ranch Meat Company sells heritage pork and turkey. McCarthy has seen a steady growth in the market.

"Heritage meats have become increasingly popular over the past five years as people get to know what they are all about," says McCarthy.

Some sources of meat have been lost forever. According to a United Nations report, half of all breeds of domestic farm animals that existed at the turn of the century have become extinct, and 43 percent of the remaining breeds are endangered.

"Some people have been keeping them alive so there is still some genetics, but not a lot of them," says Dunlop.

As a result, our food supply has become largely uniform. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy reports that just three types of cows currently make up 83 percent of the country's milk supply. Another three make up 60 percent of our beef. Just three breeds of pigs account for 75 percent of the pork production.

"The breeds of meat that you buy at the regular market are breeds that are not developed for flavor. They are developed for productivity," says Guillermo Payet of Santa Cruz. Payet is the founder of LocalHarvest.org, a Web site that links consumers to organic and local food in their area.

Payet says that drive for flavor is one of the things pushing people to buy heritage meats.

"Originally there was a lot of interest for heritage turkeys -- like from the public -- but then that has been expanding, and now we see a lot of inquires for heritage chickens and heritage pork," he says.

Payet's site gets about 20,000 visitors a day, and the traffic continues to grow as word spreads about heritage meats.

"People have been pretty tired of industrial agriculture for a while. They didn't realize how bad the quality of the food system had become until they started experiencing what they had lost," says Payet.

That loss now has new life, and ranchers like Dunlop say people can't get enough.

"I direct market, so I get all kinds of feedback about how the meat tastes, and for me, people love the heritage pigs," he says.

Heritage meat prices vary, but do tend to cost you more. Heritage pork prices, for example, are comparable to what it costs for high quality beef.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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