You’ve long ago shed your hog farmer label. Ask people raising pigs today and they’ll tell you without hesitation that they are pork producers. Actually, increasingly more of you will respond that you’re food producers (72 percent, according to the survey reported on this page in the October 2007 issue).

As the first link in the pork value chain, pork producers are probably the most closely linked to the end product in consumers’ minds. That’s partly because consumers don’t know or think about the many sectors along the pork value chain.

Ironically, while consumers like to think of simple, down-home, country folk as supplying the food that requires less than 10 percent of their income to buy, they expect — no, demand — you to carry more responsibilities. We’ve seen that evolve with food safety, animal well-being, the environment and now with workers — or the human capital side of the industry.

You will find clues of this in many of the end-of-the-year surveys or 2008 outlook articles.

For example, the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 industry forecast reveals that restaurants are adding what their patrons see as eco-friendly options to their menus, such as organic products and sustainable meats and seafood. What’s more, 62 percent of surveyed customers report choosing a restaurant based on whether it’s environmentally friendly.

That’s a significant reflection of how “green” consumers’ thought processes are these days. What’s more, the environmental issue goes beyond water, odor and air particles; it includes things like carbon trading and your environmental footprint.

Numerous meat recalls are deteriorating consumer confidence in meat safety. While that may be beef’s challenge recently, it casts a dark shadow over meat as a whole. In a Meatingplace.com survey, 34 percent of consumers said they are less confident about U.S. meat safety than they were five years ago. While 36 percent agree the U.S. government is doing everything possible to ensure meat safety, that leaves a big undecided gap.

Parade magazine’s survey “What America Eats” reflects the growing emphasis on local, natural and “green” foods. It cites “locally grown foods as one of the hottest culinary trends to come along in years.” Again, E.coli scares and tainted products from China are driving Americans to think more about their food’s origins.

According to that survey, 38 percent said that “all-natural” claims are important; 34 percent said recyclable packaging is a big factor; and 32 percent said “environmentally friendly” labels are important when making purchasing considerations. A few years ago, those factors were a mere blip on the radar. Even if the products cost more, 70 percent of consumers said they are likely to buy products that won’t harm the environment. Clearly the thought that you pay for it one way or the other is gaining traction.

Organic meat sales have grown more than tenfold in the past five years. Estimates for last year’s sales are set at $346 million versus $33 million in 2002. If you look at organic food in general, sales have grown 132 percent since 2002. Add in beverages and the market’s annual tally is nearly $6 billion. While that growth pace is not likely to continue, it is expected to increase by 59 percent through 2012. So much for it being a niche market.

Some argue that consumers’ organic and local meat-based purchases are also animal welfare endorsements. I think that’s a stretch. Consumers’ prioritization about farm-animal care remains unclear. However, they do expect and assume that you’re being a responsible steward of the animals. As long as animal welfare activists continue to raise doubt, you will face speculation and pressure.

How you treat the people within your business may not be important to consumers, although immigration issues reach on to the farm and certainly into the processing sector, it is important to put a priority on the human capital side of your business. Having qualified, well-trained and committed workers keeps you from facing animal care, environmental or food residue issues. For your own long-term benefit, you need to incorporate innovative recruiting, training and retention strategies.

So what does this all lead up to? More responsibilities for you in an increasingly challenging marketplace. Are you up to the call?

While I focused on the producer sector, you are not alone. Your fellow pork value-chain members are facing their own list of growing responsibilities — some similar, many different.

That’s why Pork magazine is sponsoring the first Responsible Pork Symposium on Feb. 5-7, in Indianapolis. Members of the pork value chain need to open the communication channels, listen and learn more about each others’ sectors, think about future challenges and find solutions that make responsible pork a uniform mantra from farm to fork.