Penn and Chinese pork producers swap ideas to share and learn

Pork is the world’s most consumed meat, thanks in large part to the Chinese. China consumes half of the planet’s pork and, accordingly, is home to roughly 50 percent of the world’s pigs.

“If you’re traveling in pig circles, China is the place to be,” says Thomas Parsons, associate professor of swine production medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center and director of the Penn Vet Swine Teaching and Research Center.

In 2015, when the University launched the Penn Wharton China Center in Beijing, it made sense to Parsons and others at Penn Vet to take advantage of opportunities for partnership, exchange, and research. And, as Chinese pork producers are continually scaling up their business operations, the Wharton School had valuable knowledge to contribute as well.

“We’ve certainly seen a lot of our colleagues go to China and mostly where they’ve gotten involved is in what I would call slat-level training: sharing information about how to care for pigs at the level of the barn,” Parsons says. “But through the Penn Wharton China Center, we could see a path that would allow us to get involved in China in a more unique way, offering guidance on a broader, more strategic level, and that was really attractive to us.”

To get the project off the ground, the Penn Vet-Wharton team applied for and secured support from the Penn China Research and Engagement Fund (CREF), a competitive program whereby the Provost’s Office matches the contributions of Penn’s schools. CREF has thus far granted $4.8 million to 25 projects around the University.

Parsons, along with fellow Penn Vet faculty David Galligan, Meghann PierdonZhengxia Dou, and Gary Althouse, reached out to Anne Greenhalgh, deputy director of the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton and an adjunct professor of management, to inquire about participating in the CREF grant project, lending the school’s business and leadership acumen to Chinese pork producers.

“When I got the note from Penn Vet, I knew essentially nothing about the swine industry,” says Greenhalgh. “But what I’ve quickly come to appreciate is that a number of the top pork producers in China are family businesses that have grown exponentially and they’re looking to professionalize their leadership and management. That’s where Wharton comes in.”

A CREF-supported project focused on the health and efficiency of China’s dairy industry had already gotten started in 2015, under the leadership of Galligan, professor of animal health economics. Beginning in 2016, the swine project followed in a parallel fashion, building on connections that dairy colleagues had already formed in China and with Zoetis, the world’s largest veterinary pharmaceutical company.

Together, Parsons’ team at Penn Vet and Greenhalgh and her Wharton colleagues arranged the first gathering of a delegation of Chinese pork producers—representing three of the six largest pork producers in the country—as well as Chinese academics, in Beijing at the Penn Wharton China Center this past spring. And last month, the delegation from China traveled to Philadelphia for a mix of seminars at Wharton and hands-on learning at Pennsylvania swine farms, feed mills, and slaughterhouses. Plans are in the works for a spring 2018 trip to Beijing that will likely include visits to Chinese swine farms.

Parsons says that, as the Chinese middle class grows, so too does an interest in animal welfare and food safety. There is also a growing awareness of the need to take action to limit the environmental impact of swine farms. On visits to farms this fall and through case studies developed in partnership with Bob Ruth, a Pennsylvania producer with Clemens Food Group who has partnered with Penn Vet, the Penn team was able to show the Chinese producers real-world examples of effective efforts to reduce antibiotic use, track and limit disease outbreaks, and offer housing for sows that increases the animals’ well-being.

“It’s a different country with a different culture and a different industry,” Parsons says, “but I think the intellectually interesting piece of this is in finding where our experiences are relevant and where they are not.”

Greenhalgh found that members of the Chinese delegation were open to ideas of efficiency and sustainability on the operations side, but also were eager to gain new information about management and leadership techniques. Talks by Wharton’s Michael Useem and Harbir Singh, who were coauthors of the book “Fortune Makers,” about innovative business leaders in China, were particularly well-received.

“Mike and Harbir gave a really nice summary of strategic leadership principles, including the ideas of embracing uncertainty and learning business leadership without the benefit of many historical models,” Greenhalgh says. “I think some of their takeaways really resonated with the group.”

The CREF grant offers support for three years, but Parsons and Greenhalgh hope that the partnerships with China will last much longer, possibly leading to student exchange programs and research opportunities.

“We want to have an impact on the industry, but we also want to find out how to generate new knowledge,” Parsons says. “We’re still in the discovery phase, but our end goal is to design research projects that will fill knowledge gaps and help the Chinese swine industry.

China Penn Pork producers