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They may not have gills or fins, but there's something decidedly fishy about hogs waddling around three farms near Winnipeg.

Contained within their portly bodies is a glut of omega-3s, the fatty acids found mainly in seafood that make oily fish so healthy.

For years, researchers have puzzled over how to add these highly sought-after oils to the flesh of other animals, with little success.

But over the past five months, Prairie Orchard Farms, a small research and marketing firm in rural Manitoba, has won two prestigious awards for doing just that. First came the federal government's highest honour for agricultural innovation in November and, three months later, another Alberta-based prize for pork innovation.

The omega-3 pig looks and tastes much like an average hog, but it could prove to be a lucrative new entry into a market that's increasingly wary of the health risks of red meat.

"I know a product like healthy bacon almost sounds like an oxymoron" said Willy Hoffmann, president of Prairie Orchard, located about 45 minutes west of Winnipeg in Elie, Man. "We have a novel product that way."

The tale of how Prairie Orchard stumbled upon omega-3 pork is one of luck and perseverance.

In 2000, the firm embarked on the modest goal of making healthier hogs by tinkering with feed mixes. Soon they were supplementing the usual mixtures of wheat, barley and soy with vitamins, minerals and, most importantly, flax.

Pork and beef naturally carry trace amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. The average hamburger has about 50 milligrams and a pork chop has about 30 mg, neither contributing much toward the 1,100 to 1,600 mg that Health Canada recommends adults eat every day.

When Mr. Hoffmann and his crew received a Vancouver lab's nutritional analysis of their experimental meat, they were shocked. A 100-gram slab of their ham contained 400 mg of omega-3s and a 100-gram side of bacon held 2,000 mg, comparable to a large salmon fillet.

"We knew we were onto something," he said.

It was good timing: Grocery stores across the country were stocking ever-greater quantities of omega-3-enhanced eggs and milk. Popular health gurus such as Nicholas Perricone were touting the benefits of the fatty acids - lower risk of heart attack, lower cholesterol, reduced inflammation and better circulation.

But two major obstacles stopped Prairie Orchard from taking their piggies to market right away. Not surprisingly, pork and fish oil didn't taste all that good together, and they tended to spoil quickly, too.

"At first, it had a poor shelf life and a poor flavour profile," Mr. Hoffmann admitted.

Prairie Orchard wasn't the first to explore the idea of omega-3 pork. Other companies had abandoned similar projects when they couldn't figure out how to increase omega-3 content without compromising taste and resilience.

But in 2004, Prairie Orchard finally hit upon the right mix of flax and grains. As a bonus, the resulting meat was also high in selenium, which is vital to healthy cell function.

Health Canada approved the omega-3 pork in the spring of 2005 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture followed suit a year later. While a number of larger producers had been pursuing the same product, Prairie Orchard was the first to gain continent-wide approval.

Producers in Prince Edward Island and Quebec have since rolled out their own brands of omega-3 pork.

So far, only three Manitoba farms are producing porkers under the Prairie Orchard label, but many more are on a waiting list.

Demand is growing slowly but steadily. Mr. Hoffman recently added several restaurants and casinos in the Winnipeg area to a client list that includes seniors' homes and specialty meat stores in Alberta and New York. He's also launched a home delivery service in Winnipeg for Prairie Orchard meat and other locally produced food.

But the niche status won't last long, according to Evelyn Tribole, a dietitian and bestselling author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet . "We're going to see more and more and more omega-3 products hit the shelves in the coming years."

One catch remains: A slab of ham still isn't quite as healthy as a fillet of salmon. On their current diet, Prairie Orchard hogs pick up high concentrations of just one of the three essential types of omega-3s: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Only marine sources contain the other two essential acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are more easily processed in the body.

"It's not as if the other white meat is now fishy," said Joe Schwartz, director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. "Simply fortifying a product with oil from flax or soy is not going to make it the same as fish."

Other pork producers are already on it. Grand Valley Fortifiers in Cambridge, Ont., is experimenting with adding fish oil to pig feed. They're also looking at manipulating pigs' digestive systems so they can more efficiently convert ALA to more useful omega-3s such as EPA and DHA.

"It's an important opportunity to add more value to the meat," said Kees de Lange, professor of swine nutrition at the University of Guelph, who's working with Grand Valley on the experiments. "There is certainly lots of interest out there."

So much interest, in fact, that Prairie Orchard is already looking at the next frontier. They'll be selling their first omega-3 chickens next week.

"We're always tinkering," Mr. Hoffmann said.

Follow on Twitter: @Nut_Graf

 

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