Snake River Farms is also a producer of high quality 100 percent Berkshire pork, which is also known as Kurobuta or “black hog” in Japanese. Since 1987, the National Pork Board has pushed pork as “The Other White Meat” (although the campaign has changed slightly in the last decade). Theiler maintains that this view of pork is simply wrong.
This Kurobuta pork is much darker in color. “The redder the meat, the higher the pH, and pH is an indicator of the ability of meat to retain moisture,” said Theiler. “This juicer meat isn’t efficient. There are less piglets per litter, they are raised slower, they are more expensive.” But the result is pork that can be cooked medium or medium rare, a level that preserves flavor and makes for a tastier chop, that is rarely associated with pork.
The secret to SRF’s success is in their closed-loop system — the carefully controlled management of every step of the beef production process. Whereas some Wagyu beef providers will buy and sell meat from a number of suppliers, some of which they may not be familiar with, SRF keeps careful tabs on everything about their product and has the ability to adjust as needed: SRF partners with many of the top ranchers in the western US (a feat made easier after they rose in notoriety) for breeding purposes; after the Wagyu bulls propagate, the calves are returned to SRF for feeding; while raising the calves, any nutritional concerns are addressed by the company’s own nutrition specialists; and at the market-facing step, during processing, the quality of the beef is carefully assessed. If a bull isn’t producing calves that meet the beef quality expected from SRF, it is removed from the breeding pool. This process fine-tunes the herd to make every generation of cattle better than the one that came before.
These steps produce better beef, but at a higher price. The total cost for raising beef to SRF’s standards is two to three times higher than for traditionally raised cattle. The majority of these costs are incurred by the time involved. Before being considered for the marketplace, cattle raised at SRF feed for about 550 days, along the Snake River on a mix of corn, Idaho potatoes, alfalfa hay and white winter wheat, while traditionally raised cattle go to market in approximately 140 days. Slower growth is comforting to think about for the health of the cattle, but more specifically, this natural growth creates more intramuscular fat — white, delicious streaks in every bite. And this fat, which makes up 25 to 35 percent of the meat nutrition, has a fatty acid profile that’s two parts mono-unsaturated to one part poly-unsaturated. This composition comes from livestock genetics unique to Wagyu, and gives the buttery-sweet taste.
The higher cost for Wagyu beef does not necessarily mean less demand, especially in the future. A recent thesis paper from the University of Missouri found that as price fluctuations occur in the high-quality meat market, when compared to lower-quality meat, the impact on demand is minimal. People are willing to accept paying more for quality. Further, as people make more money, the paper found that demand for beef increases, and the demand for high-quality beef increases the most. This means that millennials, who are more likely to demand the animal-friendly practices found at SRF, and the quality that “foodies” have come to expect, will have a massive impact on the future of beef as they begin making more money. These results are supported by another recent study, this one in the journal Meat Science, which found that meat consumption is likely to increase in the future, and that quality will be a larger driving force in the market than price and consumer income.
These signposts point to a bright future for SRF, but, if their past is any indication, the future will be a slow and steady process. (With a bit more competition from Japan.) The entire business is based on a careful inching forward of breed quality and beef taste, with each generation taking almost three years to come to market. It’s been a slow road, but it means that SRF will be producing the juiciest, tastiest meat in America for the foreseeable future. “This is not an overnight success story,” said Theiler. “This took 20 years, and we appreciate the customers who have supported us.”