Island Pork?

You can’t always believe what you read on local food labels.

Illustration: Stephen Schildbach

Next time you buy pork at the supermarket with the label “Island produced” you may want to know what that actually means.

In 1973, the state Department of Agriculture declared that this phrase could only be placed on pork that came from pigs actually raised in Hawaii. But in 2000, the law was repealed due to its unenforceability, which made it legal for supermarkets and retailers to place “Island produced” on pigs that had only been shipped to the Islands and slaughtered here. 

Dena Jones, program manager of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, calls the label misleading and claims that the pigs endure a grueling land and sea journey only to be killed here. She cites a 2007 undercover video investigation led by Handle With Care (HWC)—a coalition of animal-advocacy organizations that includes the Humane Society International—that followed shipments of live pigs from Canada to Hawaii.

The investigation found that “during the journey the animals suffer greatly and face stress, exhaustion, injury, disease and sometimes death as they are transported in cramped quarters,” Jones says.

Canada shipments, which had taken about seven to nine days—and included a five-day sea voyage—ceased in October 2007 (for reasons unrelated to HWC’s claims), but Jones says that Hawaii residents should still be concerned. She says up to 15,000 pigs will arrive in the Islands this year from two producers: one in northern Montana, which would require a similar amount of travel as the Canada pigs, and another in California, with about one day less of transport time.

The state and local pig importers have yet to see proof of these claims. The Department of Agriculture says that every livestock container is inspected once it enters the state, and that no evidence of mistreatment has been found. The CEO of Hawaii Food Products, one of two purchasers of the imported meat, says shipping pigs from the Mainland to Hawaii is not illegal. “If the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the state Department of Agriculture says that [the pigs] are being mistreated in any shape or form, we will stop,” says Norman Oshiro.

Hawaii, with its increasing urban and housing development and limited supply of agricultural lands, needs to import pigs to keep up with local demand, says Dr. Halina Zaleski, a swine specialist at UH Manoa. “In order for farmers to keep the slaughterhouse going, essentially we supplement local production with pigs that come in live from the Mainland.”

There’s high demand for “hot pork,” or pigs that are slaughtered at night and delivered to markets early the next morning. It’s “a consumer preference for many local residents and restaurants,” says Jason Moniz, program manager for the Department of Agriculture’s livestock disease control branch. Think of all of the popular local dishes that require fresh pork, from kalua pig to Chinese roast pork to Filipino lechon.

In a recent monthly newsletter from the Hawaiian Humane Society, president Pamela Burns also urged the public to shop for imported “chilled” pork, slaughtered on the Mainland. To find out if the pork you’re about to eat is truly Island raised, ask retail managers and restaurant staff about the pig’s origin.