Thousands of special hogs shipped from North Carolina to Japan each year are born and raised on farms in a region southeast of Raleigh roughly the size of Delaware. But trucks eventually haul the pigs to a Smithfield Foods packing plant, where they scamper into a metal chamber at the end of a 5-foot-wide chute.
The chute is where a river of Silky Pork begins flowing to Tokyo, swift and steady in a logistical marvel that delivers choice cuts of fresh pork across 11 time zones. For the pig, it’s the end. For the Japanese, it’s the start of an all-out effort to ensure that loins and shoulders reach someone’s plate without ever being frozen. The clock expires in 45 days.
This is where a snorting hog is transformed into a global product – the subject of fierce, ongoing tariff negotiations and the domain of international companies that kill, slice, pack, haul and ship it.
At the end of each week, loads of Silky Pork leave Clinton, a county seat farm town 65 miles southeast of Raleigh, in refrigerated 18-wheelers. Every truckload carries the equivalent of $100,000 to $150,000 in stacked white boxes of meat.
“At that point, they’re pretty much gold bars to us,” said Raymond Minott, an export manager who tracks the loads for Sumisho Global Logistics.
But they’re treated like hot potatoes. Two-man crews drive in shifts for three days to truck the boxes to California, where the pork is loaded onto a container ship at the port in Oakland. The boxes float past Alcatraz, slip under the Golden Gate Bridge and head out to sea.
About 10 days later, they land in Tokyo Bay, where the load is yet one more arrival at the world’s most profitable destination for U.S. hogs.
Today, those simple boxes of pork, marked “Smithfield” in English and Japanese, are also part of an unfolding global trade drama. The American pork industry wants to crank up its flow to Japan, but the Japanese pork industry is fighting to protect its local farmers.
A massive trade deal
U.S. pork interests are lobbying aggressively for a broad new trade agreement that would knock down barriers in Japan and other Pacific Rim markets, including Chile, Peru, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was the big trade deal of the 1990s. This one is called TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it aims to cover how 40 percent of the world’s economy trades. Previous trade deals have had lasting impact on North Carolina, gutting textile and furniture jobs while boosting pharmaceutical-related industries.
TPP is expected to gain prominence in the next few months as President Barack Obama turns to foreign policy in the wake of last month’s midterm elections and decisions begin to reach Congress. The goal is to change trade rules in areas such as technology, automobile parts, chemicals – and pork.
In North Carolina, Bob and Ted Ivey are watching closely.
The Iveys operate family-owned Maxwell Foods, which created and farms Silky Pork hogs for Japan. The Iveys follow fluctuations in currency values, monetary stimulus plans and other such forces affecting Japan’s economy.
Now they’re tracking trade negotiations taking place in closed-door meetings from Washington to Singapore to Australia. They know that more than one-fourth of U.S. pork now ships out of the country, up from about 5 percent a decade ago. Their own business has seen similar growth. To them, eliminating Japanese tariffs on pork is vital to keep pork moving at good prices. Their specially bred pork sells for more money in Japan.
“Free trade is really, really important,” Bob Ivey said. “We’ve got to get a big volume of pork out of this country, or we really take it on the chin.”
In the trade negotiations, swine has emerged as a crucial disagreement. So far, Japan wants to protect its industry.
Pork producers in the U.S. say they will pull support for a broad deal without a “fully open” Japan in the TPP. Howard Hill, president of the U.S. National Pork Producers Council, made the point in a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the lead negotiator on the TPP.
“The elimination of all protection on pork in Japan,” Hill wrote, “is the most important commercial issue ever to face U.S. pork producers.”
A question of culture
Masaru Shizawa sees it differently, and he speaks with as much passion.
He runs a pork operation in Ayase, a hilly rural area an hour southwest of Tokyo. Statues of pigs decorate his home and office, where he hands out copies of his new book, “Food is Life,” with reflections on 50 years in the pig business. Across the street, hogs fill 16 barns in a muddy field.
Shizawa is the chairman of the Japan Pork Producers Association, which carries significant political clout in Japan, just as big farm interests do in the U.S.
In an interview, he struck a nationalist argument, emphasizing that Japan should not depend too much on others for food.
“It is very important,” he said. “We Japanese pork producers, this is our identity, and we have a promise with the Japanese people. We need to keep our domestic self-sufficiency.”
Japan now produces about 55 percent of its own pork. That would plummet if the agreement is adopted without protections, he said, as U.S. pork, which is cheaper to produce, would certainly grab market share.
“Japanese culture,” Shizawa said, “would be destroyed completely.”
The Iveys and other North Carolina farmers want to keep or expand their markets, which are built on delicate relationships with Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods and Sumitomo Corp. in Japan.
“There needs to be a way to work out a balance there, and that’s a challenge of the TPP,” Bob Ivey said. “That’s the whole stumbling block for the negotiations. Should there be some level of support allowed for their local industry? We’ll see.”
The kill and cut
When the Iveys’ hogs leave the farms, they are trucked to the Smithfield packing plant in Clinton. They arrive at a barn within a patchwork of steam-spewing buildings, the oldest dating to 1951.
Much of the design there today is aimed at keeping the animals calm until the moment they die. In Clinton, that happens in a steel chamber filled with carbon dioxide. That’s seen as more humane than electric stunning, which is used in many plants across the nation.
The final minutes of a hog’s life are vital to meat quality, a wide range of studies show. Six months of careful farming can be spoiled at the meat packer’s door.
So the chute leading from the barn to the killing chamber is curved and wide in Clinton because narrow lanes and tight corners upset pigs. The workers are trained to avoid spooking the animals, which releases adrenaline and could affect the meat. For the same reason, the animals are kept in small groups.
When the pigs emerge from the chamber, the bodies flop out onto a conveyor, like luggage sliding down the carousel at an airport.
They are hooked to shackles and lifted into the air by their ankles, one by one. They fly through the plant. At one stage, workers wave flaming torches into the ears and nose, ensuring all the hairs are gone.
“You know Henry Ford and the assembly plant,” said one of the plant’s managers, Mike McNulty. “This is the opposite. It’s a disassembly plant.”
Heads veer off one way, into a room where workers slice away the ears and pull the tongues. Internal organs are divvied. The blood is captured and pumped to a tank. There’s a saying in the business, and it’s true: Everything but the squeal is used.
Soon enough, within 10 minutes, the pig starts to look like a smooth carcass ready for the cooker at a pig pickin’.
Up in the air, each carcass will eventually cross a scale. It’s the packing plant’s cash register, the moment Maxwell Foods gets paid for months of raising Silky Pork.
There, a worker stands on a platform, punching the pig’s group number and carcass weight into a keypad. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.
Over in the corner, an old dot matrix printer churns out page after page of weights, which is the basis for contracts between Smithfield Foods and the companies that send them hogs. Money is changing hands.
The carcasses turn a corner and go into a chiller, where they dangle from the ceiling for about 24 hours. The purpose is to drop the internal temperature of the meat to no more than 40 degrees.
Smithfield says that makes the meat best before they begin cutting it up.
When the Silky Pork hogs emerge from the chill room, it is almost always 6 a.m. on the nose. First cut of the day. The room smells like a bottle of bleach.
The place cranks to life, and carcasses are quickly sawed into familiar cuts: hams, butts, picnics, loins, spare ribs and bellies.
Each of these “primal cuts” then zips down its own line, an army of 100 workers wielding knives and blades here, 150 more over there, each working to further break the cuts down into, say, bacon or tenderloins.
Most days, it takes about 45 minutes to cut up 950 hogs for Japan.
A specialized job
The Japanese want their meat a certain way – cut differently than for the U.S. market – and Sumitomo has stationed a product manager, Seiichiro Sato, in North Carolina to oversee it.
Sato is from Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, but he has lived in an apartment in Fayetteville for the past two years. He wakes early to watch the cutting of meat destined for Japan.
Sato knows the meat will face demanding customers across the Pacific as his company builds a market for a more expensive U.S. pork.
He always checks for the right color, what he called “cherry.” Pale meat won’t sell.
He looks for good marbling, a hallmark of Silky Pork that’s a result of how the hogs are fed and its origins as a cross of four breeds.
Sato said he wants to make sure the workers don’t cut it wrong, which he said they rarely do. He usually gives a thumbs up.
Sizing of the cuts for Japan is smaller. Every cut must be precise and uniform.
Browse the pork chops at a grocery in Raleigh, and the packages often weigh different amounts; some chops look better than others. That doesn’t happen in Japan. Close your eyes and pick a package. They’re all the same.
Japanese customers want more “fat cover” on the loin, too, so Smithfield leaves on an extra eighth of an inch, which leads to juicier meat.
The loins are seen as among the best cuts, and they are the most expensive. They get special attention.
Boning and slicing them is the responsibility of Daniel Hollingsworth, who lives in Clinton and has worked at the plant nearly 20 years. He started as a cutter. Now, he wears a gold hat and brims with pride in executing Japanese specs with a force of more than 100 workers making an average of more than $14 an hour.
He can always tell when the “Silky” is running down the line.
“It looks so good,” he said. “So good.”
They can’t fly the meat to Japan. That would be too expensive.
They can’t go by ship from the East Coast. That trip is too far.
They can’t go by rail to the West Coast. It takes too long.
And so Sumitomo spends a lot of time ensuring nothing goes wrong when the trucks leave Clinton, always at least a day behind competitors who pack in the Midwest.
The people responsible for getting Silky Pork from here to there all point to the trucking as the most difficult part of the trip. Rigs break down. Traffic jams pop up. Drivers get sick. Heat waves and snowstorms threaten the load.
Yoko Miyawaki, the meat business director for Sumitomo’s American subsidiary, said, “It’s a crazy idea to truck load it,” but it’s still the best way.
Much of the trucking is handled by one company, C.R. England of Utah, which puts two drivers on each load. A representative said the Silky Pork business was so important and sensitive that the company couldn’t allow a reporter to ride along.
The most crucial part of the trip has nothing to do with the driving. It’s the temperature.
Delivering the loads to Japan would be much easier if the meat were frozen. Frozen meat travels well and keeps for months.
But Sumitomo wants Silky Pork “chilled,” held in a tight range around 30 degrees, the perfect temperature for keeping the meat fresh.
“It’s really sensitive,” Miyawaki said. “One degree’s change is quite a lot to the quality. You don’t want to freeze it, but you want to be as close as freezing.”
If the meat gets too cold and freezes, Sumitomo views it as ruined.
It’s a lesson in chemistry. Freezing meat expands it, which breaks down its cells. When the frozen meat later thaws, it releases water that normally would have remained locked in the muscle. The industry calls this “purge.” Most people see it as a pool of liquid in a package at the supermarket.
“You want the water to be kept in the meat,” Miyawaki said. “It’s like the juiciness that you want to keep inside.”
Two thermometers are placed in the truck when the load goes on the trailer. The drivers track the temperature constantly. When the load gets to California, the temperature recordings are checked. If the temperature got too cold, the load freezes, and its value plummets.
When the pork arrives in Japan, it goes to a chilly, five-story warehouse overlooking the Port of Tokyo. Workers pop open a lock on the trailer and start stacking the Smithfield boxes for inspections and customs officials.
Sumitomo has people there, too. The first thing they look for is the readings from the thermometer.
Then they pull random boxes and study the meat. In late September, two meat managers were there, with iPhones and tape measures.
One loin didn’t seem as long as the others. It was set aside and photographed by Takefumi Yoshikawa, a meat manager for a Sumitomo subsidiary. His photo would be sent to North Carolina, a message that everything wasn’t perfect.
“We are looking for it to be always good for the customers,” Yoshikawa said. “Always good.”
Tomorrow: Tasting tonkatsu