French pork producer focuses on sustainability to meet evolving consumer demands
In a country world-famous for its food, a small French pig producer’s strategy for meeting consistently high standards of quality, welfare and nutrition has earned it a spot on the map.
The Haffner family has been farming pigs in northeastern France for generations, but their vertically integrated operation still isn’t easy to find.
Tucked into a quiet corner of the Lorraine region, Ferme Haffner (Haffner Farm) is nestled into the rural village of Montigny in the department of Meurthe-et-Moselle — population 150.
Despite its remote location, the progressive farm is hardly a secret to its expanding customer base — one that’s been fueled in recent years by the Haffners’ ambitious production model, which balances quality, consistency and efficiency with consumer demand for healthier, responsibly raised food that is also flavorful.
The consistent quality and solid traceability of the Haffners’ pork products have earned them a loyal following at regional markets, restaurants, catering companies and national food fairs. These events include the Salon International de l’Agriculture in Paris (Paris International Agricultural Show), an annual trade fair that attracts half a million visitors each year.
In addition, Haffner products are gaining popularity among health-conscious consumers through the “Bleu Blanc Coeur” (“Blue White Heart”) program. Founded in 2000 and backed by France’s National Health and Nutrition Plan, the nationwide initiative aims to encourage healthier eating.
As members of this program, the Haffners are part of an alliance of farmers, scientists, agronomists and consumers who promote healthier and more diverse animal diets as part of a healthier diet for humans. By feeding their pigs flax seed — a natural source of antioxidant omega-3 oil — the Haffners qualify to use the nationally recognized logo on their product packaging, as well as on the farm’s retail website.
The Haffner Farm’s growth hasn’t just benefited the family or its loyal customer base. It is also a cornerstone of the local economy, employing 10 staff in addition to family members. In addition, to make their fumé lorrain products, the Haffners procure the skills of local butchers and employ experienced local charcuterie makers to tend the smoking chambers, and prepare and pack each product.
Picture of sustainability
Spread over 225 hectares (556 acres), the Haffners raise their own wheat, barley and maize, in addition to peas for protein, which reduces their need to buy soya.
Producing around 3,800 pigs annually, the farm has 200 breeding sows averaging 2.4 litters per year. Pigs are finished at 110 kg (240 lbs), before being taken to their slaughterhouse 25 kilometers (16 miles) away. Some of the carcasses are sold to other meat companies, but most of the output returns to the Haffners’ fully registered food-production unit.
Here, carcasses are butchered and turned into fresh meat cuts, along with the components for a range of traditional, smoked charcuterie products that are generically referred to as fumé lorrain. Nothing goes to waste: The regional charcuterie tradition developed to ensure every part of the carcass is used (see sidebar).
The farm is managed by Michel Haffner and his brother Daniel. Michel’s wife Florence and their two sons are also involved with the business.
According to Michel, the farm’s high level of integration gives the family not only better control over the final product but also
the chance to make a difference at crucial points in the pigs’
For example, the Haffners — early adopters of animal-welfare measures — keep pregnant sows in groups, housed in a purpose-built shed that was in use long before the EU group-housing regulations came into force.
They’re also looking out for the welfare of the males. While many pig farms in the EU still castrate male pigs to minimize aggression and ensure meat quality, the Haffners stopped doing it 5 years ago.
“Surgical castration of piglets is stressful for all concerned,” Michel says. “Even with pain relief for castrated piglets, stress levels from firm handling are considerable for both the animal and the stockman.”
He explains that castration was necessary in the past to prevent boar taint, an unpleasant odor that can develop in meat from sexually mature male pigs. As an alternative, the Haffners use a vaccine that is approved throughout the EU and other major swine markets for the reduction of boar taint.
“It’s not a hormone,” Michel points out, “and it doesn’t need to persist in the animal’s tissues to have its effect.” Instead, the vaccine works through the pig’s immune system to temporarily delay puberty, thereby reducing the accumulation of androstenone and skatole, the natural compounds that cause boar taint in adult males.
“It allows us to be confident in the quality of our product while ensuring the health and welfare of our male stock,” Michel adds.
The Haffners administer the vaccine in two doses: the first at 2 to 3 months to prime the immune system and the second about 10 weeks later, at which point the vaccine takes full effect.
In addition to sparing male pigs the pain and health risks associated with castration, vaccinating pigs also limits aggressive behavior, contributing to a calmer and safer environment for all pigs. Calm pigs also burn fewer calories and spend more time eating, which allows them to put on weight faster.
However, the benefits of the vaccine go well beyond animal welfare, Michel reports. By allowing male pigs to realize more of their inherent potential for lean, efficient growth, vaccination is also a useful tool for improving feed efficiency, as well as the quality and consistency of meat.
“Meat from castrated males is fatty and soft. By vaccinating the males, the conformation is closer to that of the females, which makes it easier to get consistent results later on,” he explains.
Previous generations were raised on fattier and more variable conformations, he adds, but today’s consumers want leaner meat with more uniformity.
“This is what consumers are looking for today,” he states confidently, holding up a piece of smoked flank he had taken from a slicing machine. “Now, we can also control the feeding with much more precision, so it is possible to get more lean meat and less fat.”
How charcuterie ‘balances the carcass’
On every pig carcass there are a number of cuts that have an immediate value with straightforward processing.
Loin cuts, including pork chops and roasts, account for about 80% of French pork sales, and the hind legs of heavier pigs are needed for bone-in hams. However, along with every pair of loins or hams, there is still a lot of pig left to break down and process.
Charcuterie has developed as a way of ensuring that every part of a carcass is used — a process referred to as “balancing the carcass.” In essence, it involves curing or preserving meat for later consumption. Although the charcuterie sector is now composed of increasingly specialised businesses, the Haffners process 50 to 60 carcasses a week at their food-production unit.
Starting with the hams and working with progressively smaller pieces of meat, the charcuterie butcher processes the remaining parts of a carcass. The final stages involve pushing “forcemeat” into casings to make sausages, or mincing up remaining offal or meat to cook off as terrines or pâtés. Long-grained meat can be cooked and then pulled apart to make rillettes.