I have been involved in pork quality for almost twenty years, having had the responsibility for the pork quality program with the pork producers for many years in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. We made great strides in understanding, defining, measuring, surveying, educating and developing programs aimed at pork quality improvement throughout the pork chain. The base from which we began allowed a lot of progress in a few short years.
The evolution seemed like it followed ten-year trends. In the 80’s, we knew about performance traits such as growth rate and feed efficiency, but we were still trying to focus on carcass composition. In the 90’s, we had moved toward carcass-buying programs and we were getting pretty good at traits like backfat level, lean gain feed efficiency and lean percent, but we were still pretty naïve about pork quality. By the year 2000, we had a developed an understanding of what pork quality was, what consumers here and abroad wanted and some of the factors involved with pork quality on the farm, in transport and in the plant. We were still pretty vague about the nutrient contribution of pork to the diet.
During those hay days in pork-quality development, we put together the Transport Quality Assurance program, which since has shown demonstrable improvements in the number of DOA’s at packing plants. There currently are about 27,000 entities registered in this program at any one time. Such a great success! We also identified a flow of information on the factors throughout the chain that affect pork quality and exactly what needed to change to bring improvements. A lot of research was applied literally overnight to cause measurable pork-quality improvements.
I participated in an informal roundtable discussion about grading for pork quality that was hosted by the National Pork Board. There were several meat scientists and technical people representing some of the major pork packers in the country. I have always been a proponent of pork-quality measuring and communication, which are the precepts of a grading program, whether industry-run or managed by the government.
To make the next round of improvements for the industry and to provide producers with more information on their status, we need accurate measuring systems by which we can communicate the need for change through a price differential. I’ve always thought that at least the foodservice and export sectors would pay for such identified high quality pork, even if retail commodity price buyers would not. Enough retail product is sold as branded fresh product, which would provide for a return from quality improvements.
One of the biggest obstacles to developing a pork-grading system is the inability to measure pork quality and to assign a grade with any degree of speed and/or accuracy. We can measure color, but pork changes in color as it ages and depending on packaging and lighting. So the question is, when and where do you measure? Also, one can measure color on the various cuts, but it is difficult to measure on the carcass to provide a meaningful metric back to producers.
We always thought marbling was important and, in fact, developed a set of marbling scores. However, research has shown that pH is much more important to eating satisfaction than marbling. Most packers have established a pH score for their primary producer suppliers on an entire herd basis, but the technology is not sound enough to provide an accurate indication on a per-pig basis.
I asked one packer who has several natural product lines what they measure in order to sort pork to go to specific end uses. I was told they primarily do it by source. In other words, through a combination of tests and measures over time, they have a pretty good feel for the eating quality and appearance of the pork from each of their supplier’s herds. The best lots are segregated for use in these branded natural products.
The other thing that must be stated in any pork quality discussion is that enhancement technology really sustained the industry through the years of extremely lean hogs that would otherwise be tough and dry. When we took out all the fat and marbling, we also compromised the tenderness and juiciness of the product, especially when consumers overcooked it as they are wont to do. Enhanced pork, being 30 percent more tender, juicier, and with a definite flavor profile to replace the fat flavor profile, sustained the industry at exactly the time it was needed. However, it also meant that measuring and grading for pork quality became a back-burner issue.
Where we go from here in terms of pork quality and its potential grading will be interesting to watch. There are renewed discussions, and a new economic study on the value of such measurements to the industry will also help shed light on the subject. It will be very interesting to see what direction this program will go.