Producer question: What do Japanese consumers want from U.S. pork?

Miller's response: Fresh loins are the primary U.S. pork products exported to Japan. Importers use the Japanese color scale to select loins that are acceptable for that market. We've been told the Japanese like darker colored pork, yet lacked supporting evidence.

To improve U.S. pork's competitive position, we wanted to find out what color ranges, marbling levels and eating properties are important to the Japanese.

We selected 196 loins on a single day at Hormel Foods in Austin, Minn., that varied in quality traits. We collected loin quality data at the plant in order to establish relationships between measuring techniques that could be used to select pork loins at the plant for the Japanese trade. We also measured these same attributes in Japan to learn how quality traits changed in transport.

Quality traits measured included color, pH, firmness and marbling in the blade-end, sirloin-end and the 10th-rib loineye muscle.

Loins were taken from both sides of each animal. The loin from one side was used to determine trained sensory eating quality tenderness at Iowa State University. The loin from the other side was shipped to Japan.

Since we did not want the 84 consumers to know they were eating U.S. pork, a Japanese research firm conducted the on-site test. One-inch-thick pork chops from each loin were cooked to an internal temperature of 70¦C. Japanese consumers were asked to taste and evaluate 12 samples served in pairs. They evaluated each for acceptance of aroma, juiciness, tenderness, flavor and overall taste.

After evaluating each sample, consumers were asked which they would purchase. Prices varied from the average paid for pork in Japan to prices that were lower and higher to determine relationships between quality and purchase intent.

Participants also evaluated 12 retail packages of pork, rating each on appearance, color and amount of fat. In reality, the 12 samples that a consumer evaluated for eating quality were the same that he/she evaluated visually.

We found that visual appearance, specifically color, was the main factor in Japanese consumer acceptance. The study used the NationalPork Producer's Council (five-point scale) and the Japanese (six-point scale) color scales.

Lean color scores of 3, 4 or 5 are preferred; and they disliked light colored pork (Japanese color scores of 1 or 2). Also, color scores from the 10th-rib loineye muscle best indicated consumer preferences for tenderness and color. However, if loins can't be split at the 10th rib, then color measures in the blade-face reflected consumer preferences better than the sirloin-face. We found that the three instruments used to measure lean color were about equal in predicting Japanese color preference.

Marbling influenced visual preference. Japanese consumers showed that pork with marbling scores of 1 percent or 2 percent were less desirable, and they rated these samples lighter in color. Pork loins should have marbling scores of 3 percent or higher to increase Japanese consumer preferences.

Consumers indicated that loins with NPPC firmness scores of 1 (on a five-point scale) were drier, tougher, lighter colored and less visually acceptable. As firmness scores rose from 2 to 3, 4 or 5, Japanese consumers said the chops were juicier, more tender, darker and more visually acceptable. We concluded that pork loins with NPPC firmness scores of 1 or 2 should not be selected for export to Japan.

As pH increased, Japanese consumers rated pork more acceptable for juiciness, tenderness, taste and color. As lipid content in the loin increased, consumers rated pork as slightly more tender. They rated higher-lipid pork as more acceptable for appearance, color and fat.

Participants indicated that regardless of color or price, if the pork was tough they were less likely to buy it. The same goes for light colored pork even if it was priced low, was tender and regardless of pH. They were four times more likely to purchase pork if it had a 5.75 pH or higher and had Instron (mechanical tenderness) values less than or equal to 6 lbs. If intramuscular fat was less than 4.5 percent in light colored pork, consumers were unlikely to buy it.

These results confirm some issues about Japanese preferences for darker colored pork – Japanese color scores of 3 to 5 are acceptable. Marbling is not as important as originally thought, and tenderness did play a role in preference. The results now provide targets when selecting product for the Japanese market.

Rhonda Miller is a meat scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station.