Fast-food restaurants continue to lure Americans through their drive-thrus and swinging doors with the promise of tasty and convenient food at an inexpensive cost. According to the National Center for Health Statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 84.8 million (36.6%) American adults eat fast food every day. In other words, one in every three American adults will eat fast food today, tomorrow, and the next day.
That is a lot of fast food that America is eating. But, is pork caught up in the mix of processed food served in a hurry? After all, there aren’t many fast-food restaurants devoted entirely to pork like there are for chicken or beef. While there might not be pork-centric fast food joints, pork easily finds its way onto most fast-food menus in some form or another. And, it almost always comes in the form of processed pork.
Here are some details about processed pork and the fast-food diet. In 2019, fast-food companies increased their breakfast campaigns to draw consumers through their doors for the most “important” meal of the day. Breakfast is the one meal throughout the day where the meat product most likely eaten is pork. McDonald’s, the largest fast-food restaurant in the world, makes up to a quarter of its sales (around $10 billion) on breakfast alone.
According to Datassential, bacon was on 68.1% of fast-food menus as of 2018. This number is expected to grow to 69.8% as of 2022. This includes bacon on the breakfast menu as well as the lunch and dinner menus. It is often found on top of burgers, chicken sandwiches, and even salads.
But, processed pork is not just confined to fast food. Only one-third of the pig is sold as fresh meat. The rest is turned into processed pork products. This allows consumers to eat it at restaurants or to buy it at their local grocery store to eat at home.
As shared in “The Chicken Edition,” there has been an expanding need to increase food production globally to keep up with the growing number of people. In addition to producing more food, companies are looking for ways to prolong the shelf life of their products. These two needs are impacting the way that meat products are processed and farm animals are raised.
Before discussing what is done to fresh pork to turn it into processed pork, it is important to identify what constitutes processed pork. It goes by many names. Here are a few items you’ll recognize:
As with other processed food products, the additional items used to create the final product are of great concern to consumers. Pork products are no different.
The FDA explains that food additives are “any substance” that “directly or indirectly” affects “the characteristics of any food.” The most frequent uses of additives are to boost the flavor or to alter the appearance of food.
Common food additives include:
Whether additives are natural or artificial, they not only add flavor, but they can also increase the calories, sugar, sodium, and other nutritional values.
Using the definition above, preservatives are considered a form of food additives. However, they serve a purpose beyond just taste and appearance. The point of preserving meat is to improve its shelf life. Preservatives help to slow down or stop the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mold.
Common preservatives used in processed meat include:
Due to the year-round convenience, processed pork is preferred over fresh pork in catering, fast food, and restaurants. Even regular consumers enjoy the fact that they can buy bacon or sausage and leave it in their fridge for months before it starts to go bad. These are the preservatives doing their job.
However, there is great concern about how the chemicals often used as preservatives are impacting the human body. According to WebMD, some studies show that nitrates can cause health complications. Similar studies exist for other preservatives.
In addition to additives and preservatives used in processed pork, the way pigs are raised can have an impact on the final pork products. According to Market Data Forecast, the global processed pork market was estimated to be worth $10.2 billion in 2021. It is predicted to reach $18.4 billion by 2026. As pork consumption continues to increase per capita, pig farms do whatever is necessary to meet the demand. For the large corporate pig farms, this often means cramming as many pigs as possible into confined spaces.
Pigs are social animals. They prefer to be roaming around in open areas while foraging for food. Unfortunately, these large farms are not conducive to their preferred lifestyle. Instead, pigs usually spend their lives indoors in pens or crates. They don’t have the privilege of spending time outdoors where they can roam and forage.
Many pig farms also use gestation crates. While pregnant, sows spend the duration of their gestation period—about 16 weeks—in a crate or stall. It is about one foot longer than their bodies giving them very limited space to move around.
Due to the confining spaces that pigs are placed, they tend to get sick easier. To help combat illness, farmers give pigs antibiotics. However, some of the antibiotics used by farmers on their livestock are the same antibiotics that are used for humans. This has led to major concerns that the use of medically important antibiotics will carry some residue in pork products.
The greater concern of antibiotic residue is that it adds to an already antibiotic-resistant society. If pigs are being given the same antibiotics, humans will continue to build up a resistance to them. If antibiotics are no longer effective, people cannot rely on them to fight infections. This creates a public health threat.
Due to the concern around antibiotic use in livestock, some companies have created policies about their use in the products they use in their fast-food restaurants. Based on information updated in 2020 by Feed Them Wisely, these are the fast-food restaurants that have a policy against the use of antibiotics in the pork that they serve.
Here are the fast-food restaurants from that same list that don’t have an antibiotics policy for pork. This does not include companies that don’t have a publicly available policy. Keep in mind that this just pertains to pork; many of these companies do have antibiotic policies for chicken or beef.
While a significant percentage of pork goes to making processed pork for restaurants or grocery stores, there are healthy options available for both fresh and processed pork. Knowing more about the source of the pork products you buy and consume can help you make healthier choices.
Some corporate companies have already made, or are committed to making, changes in the way they farm their animals or source their meat. For example, Kroger, one of the largest U.S. grocery chains, has committed that by 2025 it will transition its farms (self-operated and contracted) away from using gestation crates for pigs. CP Foods, a large global pig producer, has made a similar commitment.
As you buy pork products in grocery stores, being an educated buyer and reading labels can help you in choosing high-quality meat. Here are some possible labels to look for:
Grocery stores are not the only place to buy pork. Local farmers are a great option to consider, and many follow more ethical farming practices. You can use the same list from above to research local farms to determine how they raise their animals and process their meat products.
Grand Peaks Prime Meats is based out of Idaho Falls, Idaho. They have provided high-quality meat to their community for more than 65 years. They continue to be committed to obtaining meat from farms dedicated to ethical practices, using high-quality products as they process their meat products, and providing superior cuts of fresh meats. Whether you’re looking for pork ribs, pork chops, ham, bacon, bratwurst, or sausage, contact them if you’re interested in seeing what products are currently available or to place an order. You won’t be disappointed!