The loin and backfat of a small Mangalitsa hog.

Wrapping up three great days of Pigstock in Traverse City, MI, and I’ll write more about it, but had to quickly share the astonishing differences in breeds of hogs, and most important, the difference between a factory-farmed pig and a properly raised pig.


Above Brian Polcyn shows four different breeds. On the left is the belly of a factory-farmed pig, breed not known. Notice how diminutive it is, how little fat is on that loin, which I guarantee tastes like cardboard when cooked. Compare it to the one he’s holding up, a farm-raised Berkshire-Duroc mix. When you buy the one on the left, not only will it not be a pleasure to cook and eat, you have cast a vote for more just like it. When you buy a belly from a farm-raised Berkshire, you have cast a vote for more of those.


This is a close-up of the Berkshire belly and loin.

Every one of us impacts the food system each time we put our money down. I know it’s not always possible, for numerous reasons, to buy the very best food for you and your family, but it’s fundamental that you are aware of the impact of your actions and, if you care about the quality of what you and your family eats, the difference between good food and compromised food.



29 Wonderful responses to “Heritage Versus Commercial Hogs”

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Was there any discussion about the laws that have been proposed in some states restricting/forbidding the raising of some heritage breeds because of the fear of escapes and the speed at which those varieties go feral?

    • ruhlman

      Brian texted me this response: Pork does have a yield grade based on leanness of meat ratio if usable meat to bone number 1-4, 1 having most meat and thickness of back fat over last rib 1-4 one being the thinnest. Stupid. Was developed in 80s by USDA, I think it is not mandatory to grade pork shield symbol just round stamp that means it fit for human consumption

      • former butcher

        USDA Grading of all species is a voluntary and reimbursable service paid for by the packer, who is charged by the hour (at least it was when I was in the business). The only two red meat species that are regularly graded by USDA are cattle and sheep. And the primary beneficiary of grading is the wholesaler, not the consumer. Since each carcass gets a Grade and Yield number, a meat wholesaler in Boston can order beef from a packing house in Iowa, and have a pretty good idea of what he’s getting. In my 30+ years I have never seen USDA graded pork. Some large packers had their own yield numbers, and were pretty consistent; but another packer might grade on a different standard.

    • KristineB

      Your the sentence again. He says it will “not be pleasurable” so pretty sure he meant left.

    • ruhlman

      no, the skinny little non-belly on left is what you want to avoid. the one on right you can’t see all of is very large.

      • JC

        I think what Marc was referencing was the second reference (see below):
        “On the left is the belly of a factory-farmed pig, … When you buy the one on the left, not only will it not be a pleasure to cook and eat, you have cast a vote for more just like it.” The second reference to left seems off.

  • Harry

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about Pigstock. I now buy pastured pork in bulk and have all sorts of interesting parts to work with, but – despite having a copy of Charcuterie – feel stymied about what interesting things to do with it. So here’s to hoping for more ideas.

  • Ryan

    I find this a little confusing, because sometimes the better-raised animal is not necessarily larger and more plump. For example, the chickens I buy from a smaller farm don’t have nearly the enormous breast meat that the industrial chickens have. However, I agree about fat content, it’s probably likely to be lower in factory farmed food.

    • Josh

      Long time Ruhlman fan (read: worshiper), first time poster…

      Apples and Oranges. Chickens are not Pigs. Commodity/ factory chickens have large breasts b/c they’re pumped with a growth hormone cocktail. I think the size of the belly of heritage breed pigs is also due to the manner in which those breeds tend to be raised (small farm, lots of love, good feed), vs. factory raised pigs which obviously raised in less than ideal conditions, and feed garbage (literally). Moreover, if a “normal” breed hog was raised on a small farm you would see similar belly thickness (and I have seen this).

    • ruhlman

      We want pigs fat, so we raise them that way. not Big Pork, want lean for consumer’s fear of fat. But the point raised is good: just because a farmer raised it doesn’t mean it’s good. Farmer has to know what he/she is doing.

    • Laura

      Chickens are not raised for their fat. Also they are not anatomically built for the oversized breast they are factory bred to have. Pigs on the other hand are naturally fat. Things got all turned around cos people who raised factory animals got the idea that the american consumer wanted huge chicken breasts and lean pork. That’s how we get these sad lopsided birds and lean tasteless pork. Heritage breeds are more natural and anatomically correct. That means a normal size breast in the chicken and a nice layer of fat in the pig.

  • Katie

    chickens and turkeys have been commercially bred to have enormous breast meat. Commercial turkeys have to be artificially inseminated, because they are so topheavy they are physically incapable of mating.

    Free-range/small-farm chickens are raised to be proportioned normally.

  • May

    What are the other two piggies, far right and second from the left? Equal opportunities for pigs, I say!

  • Josh

    I purchased a family-raised berkshire hog this year, and made mind-blowing bacon, sausage, shoulder roasts, and chops from him. The belly had a fat layer similar to your pictures above. However, I find the hams to be very dry and difficult to prepare. They are dried out before I even get them up to a reasonable eating temperature. Any idea what I may have done wrong, or if this might be characteristic of the berkshire breed?

    • Laura

      Don’t know for sure how those hams were prepared–dry-cured/smoked or both, but it seems like you wouldn’t cook these in the oven as a whole piece if they have been hanging up curing, because a lot of the water has come out of the meat during the curing process. You eat it more like prosciutto if it’s like that.

      There are some who say you can wash and soak a country ham over night to bring back moisture and get some of the salt out. Then cut thick slices to fry or roast the whole thing low and slow after the soaking. I would try slicing it thin and see if the texture and taste is better that way. Plus if you have meat on the bone or other thick bits you can’t slice, it would be a great meat for soups.

  • Jared

    I have been eating berkshire pork belly for the last year, as my own bacon. The quality is a huge step up in flavor. I can’t really eat more than a couple of pieces because it is so rich, but it is worth the price of admission for sure. The fat is just great for cooking anything. I need to grab some other heritage breeds and give those a try.

  • former butcher

    Our parents and grandparents (I’m talking 50’s and earlier) ate a fattier hog. If they were farmers or country folk, they fed their animals a wide variety of food, and probably had a particular day or week when they would bring them to slaughter (first week of November is what I remember). And all that fat would get used….rendered into lard, mostly. But even chops served at the table and bacon at breakfast were a lot fattier than what you would buy today at the supermarket.
    And as for “heritage” breeds, I think it’s the particular raising of the animal that’s important. That and the “breeding” or lineage of the hog. Yorkshire, Poland-China, Landrace….producers who have good breeding stock, and people who feed and nurture them well, will produce a superior meat animal.

  • suzy

    so factory farmed beef has higher fat content compared to grass-fed beef, but pork is the other way around? interesting…. is this because cows are naturally leaner and pigs are naturally fatter…?

  • former butcher

    Fat, whether on a cow, pig, or us, is nature’s way of storing excess nutrients. And because of a cow’s natural diet (grass) and different digestive system (the four stomach thing), there is very little excess. Whereas a pig’s digestive system is almost identical to ours; and we both need to store away excess, and use it up according to our metabolisms. Humans tend to go overboard; and we have the issue of cholesterol.
    Cows are purposely fattened at feedlots, where their metabolisms are stuffed with all this grain their systems can”t use up, hence the body fat that makes beef so tasty. The same could be said for swine, since we tend to over feed them with grain as well.
    This is a very rough sketch, and there are exceptions to everything.

  • reg

    Interesting, I just finished butchering a berkshire that I was not happy with but it may have been to small, 150lbs dressed. What size are the hogs that were butchered for the article ?

  • Rob Brummett

    We raise commercially sourced piglets in a pasture/fresh air model and I agree with the observations above. Even if you raise your hogs with tender loving care, you will never get that thick back fat from a commercial crossbred pig unless you take it to way beyond market weight.


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