Friday, January 16, 2009
Someone has written about Caw Caw Creek, Emile DeFelice's farm quitting entirely with Ossabaws. Emile DeFelice and the Ossabaw Island Hogs got written about in "Pig Perfect", Peter Kaminsky's popular book.
Ossabaws are a feral breed of hogs. They are small, difficult to manage and, for feral pigs, very lardy. All those traits work against any commercial exploitation: "small" means slaughter will cost too much per pound of pork, "difficult to manage" implies expensive and irritating and "very lardy" means you've got unusually lardy carcasses (and, as with the Mangalitsa, better meat quality).
From talking to people, the feral qualities of the Ossabaws are what bother them the most. A woman who worked at a zoo where they had Ossabaws told me they routinely charged and bit her; she's got scars to prove it. Also, the Ossabaws preyed on birds than entered their area, which meant the staff had to clean up "crime scenes" so that visiting children wouldn't get alarmed by the pigs' predatory behavior.
I had some of Emile's hams made from Ossabaw Island Hogs a few years ago. At that time, they were the best I'd had in America. When I later visited Europe and ate Mangalitsa products (from Mangalitsa raised in pens, not masted like his), I was surprised that the Mangalitsa products tasted so much better than Emile's, because I'd thought his was so great that it couldn't possibly be bested. That experience led to me studying the issue and getting a more scientific understanding of the topic.
Some have compared the Mangalitsa to the Ossabaw. There certainly are some similarities - but fundamentally, the Ossabaw hogs were subjected to 400 years of natural selection for living on one Georgian island, while the Mangalitsa was produced by Hungarian breeders who needed a large, hardy, easily-fattened.
The Ossabaw's qualities (tough, ready to bite) are like those of some of the breeds used to create the Mangalitsa. As livestock raising changed from nomadic herding of semi-wild pigs to confining hogs on farms (the "megafarms" of the 1800s), the Mangalitsa's progenitors disappeared. The Mangalitsa, better-suited for the "factory farms" of its day, displaced them entirely.
So far, the Ossabaw seems to fill a niche in medical research, so it may not disappear immediately. But if it ever happens that researchers finish with them, that might be it for the Ossabaw population. Besides the Ossabaw, there are other breeds, some of historical and commercial importance, that could quickly disappear from the USA if labs stopped researching them.
I was a bit surprised when I found out how organizations like the ALBC decide which breeds are worth conserving. It isn't based on the genetic merit of the breeds, but rather on things like having a traditional relationship to the USA. Hence, recent foreign imports like Wagyu cattle and Mangalitsa pigs don't merit conservation, despite them having unique genetic merit and relatively small worldwide populations.
Posted by Heath Putnam at 12:30 AM