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The pork market

High beef prices, more efficient production and an improved product have pushed pork to the forefront.

With 2006 supplies 2.3 percent larger than a year ago, restaurants can expect to see very affordable pork prices.

"We're on the high supply side now and the low side in price," reports Steve Meyer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Paragon Economics. "Pork has a four-year production cycle—much shorter than beef—and with improved industry operations, the market is more predictable and stable. Prices shouldn't go up or down more than 4 percent."

Even though supplies are ample, many pork producers are getting decent prices due to increased demand for exports, notes industry analyst Bill Lapp of Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. Pork is especially profitable abroad when compared to beef and chicken, he adds.

Here, restaurant demand for cuts such as butts, bellies and shanks is strong. "People aren't as fat phobic as they were a few years ago," Meyer says. "They realize that fat adds texture and flavor." But loins are particularly well-priced right now, and chefs often brine the chops and roasts to add juiciness. In addition, there are tasty bargains from the new leg products, such as the steamship roast.

The hottest area of growth for pig farmers is niche pork—a category that refers to specialty meat outside the realm of conventional or commodity pork. Included are pigs that are raised without antibiotics, animal by-products and growth hormones; certified Berkshire or kurobuta pork; pasture-raised and locally grown pork; and specific heritage breeds, like heirloom Red Wattle pigs. Some of this meat can also fall under the "natural" or "organic" label.

t takes more dollars to raise these animals so their meat is priced at a premium, but operators and consumers seem willing to pay for the taste. Berkshire pork, especially, has become the darling of chefs. "Producers doing heritage breeds are seeing reasonable returns and that's why the business is growing," says Meyer. "At one time, they had a unique animal but no way to sell it. Now there's a distributor network in place."

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