Consumers look in the meat case at their local food chain and see dozens of choices. Their eyes scan the pork, beef and chicken cuts, comparing price and nutritional value. Let’s say they decide to buy pork chops – now the hard part begins. How do they choose the package that’s going to give them the best eating experience?

Chances are they probably all look pretty similar. It’s great that the industry has strived to produce a more consistent product, but some people believe we’ve made pigs too lean, at the sacrifice of a more satisfying eating experience.

When we surveyed PorkNetwork visitors about pork quality, 57 percent of those who responded agreed with the statement, “U.S. pigs are too lean, and pork isn’t as tasty as a result.”

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.”  She has a consistent following of both consumers and producers, which results in some interesting and lively comment chains.

“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 other 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 as well as 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. However, we need to remember that the breeds or lines that are more heavily marbled also may 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 provides an incentive for marbling. There are incentives for quality, which measures color, texture and firmness, but marbling has been at the low end of the totem pole. It’s been neglected.”

 According to research at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, United Kingdom, by Charlotte Maltin, et al., meat quality describes a range of attributes. Consumer research suggests that tenderness is an important element of eating quality and that variations in tenderness affect the decision to repurchase.

Scientists there report that a number of factors have been shown to affect tenderness. Of these factors, postmortem factors, particularly temperature, sarcomere length (sarcomere is the basic unit of a muscle) and proteolysis (which affects the conversion of muscle to meat), appear most important. However, it is becoming clear that variation in other factors such as the muscle fiber type composition and the buffering capacity of the muscle together with the breed and nutritional status of the animals may also contribute to the observed variation in meat tenderness.

Additional research to study marbling and its importance related to taste, juiciness and tenderness would be money well-spent. And identifying the right balance between leanness and quality is certainly something for producers to keep in mind as they select breeding stock.