Last week, we posted the results of our poll on pork quality, which turned out to be quite revealing. Fifty-seven percent of those who responded agreed with the statement, “U.S. pigs are too lean, and pork isn’t as tasty as a result.” It bears further discussion.

A friend of mine saw the results and suggested I call a person she’d met recently. Janeal Yancey is a program technician at the University of Arkansas. Not only does she have a Masters and a Ph.D in meat science but she also writes a blog called, “Mom at the Meat Counter.”  My friend says, “[Janeal] has a great following of both consumers and aggies, which results in some very interesting and lively comment chains.”

Who better qualified to answer our questions?

“My opinion is that pork is a lot leaner than it’s been historically,” she says. “I don’t think we want to go back to a lot of external fat, but geneticists and producers might want to try to get more marbling back in the pork. If you talk to chefs and high-end food producers, they really go for the Berkshire pork and highly marbled pork lines. That can be done with genetic selection as well as feeding.”

Yancey says scientists at the University of Arkansas have done research on improving marbling in pork and on bacon quality.

“Bacon quality suffers when pigs are too lean,” she says. “Not having enough fat in the bellies is one of the biggest drivers of the floppy belly problem we have. To get a belly that is thick enough to make good bacon, the pig has to be really big. This might affect tenderness since they could be older animals, but that’s not something I’ve scientifically proven.”

Yancey explains that in general, as the whole animal fattens, marbling is going to improve. “We’ve improved marbling in beef cattle with genetics and there’s no reason why that wouldn’t work in pork, too. I think genetics are going to be the driving force. We need to keep in mind however, those breeds or lines that are more heavily marbled may also be a little fatter and lighter muscled.”

It’s all about finding the right balance, and getting paid for the right attributes, she notes. “The pork industry doesn’t have a marketing system that gives incentive for marbling. There are incentives for quality, which is color, texture and firmness, but marbling has been at the low end of the totem pole. It’s been neglected.”

Perhaps we would be wise to invest additional research dollars into ways to improve marbling, and it’s certainly something for producers to keep in mind as they select breeding stock.