Consumers say they know what they want when it comes to pork product traits, but uncertainties still remain. This is mostly true involving lean color and marbling qualities that translate into a quality eating experience.

Those are some of the findings from Larry McMullen’s consumer-preference study, conducted for the Iowa Pork Industry Center, Iowa State University. The Iowa State Extension swine field specialist surveyed consumers about pork products and industry trends to measure their acceptance and willingness to pay for certain traits. Of the participants, 40 percent ate fresh pork two or more times a week; 29 percent ate it at least once a week.

The survey revealed that consumers want good-tasting, juicy and tender pork, says McMullen. Participants were divided when asked if they tended to shop for economical pork products (cost per pound) versus paying more for a brand name and/or higher quality product.

While most participants said they would be willing to pay for products that provide superior eating satisfaction, consumers don’t always do as they say.

McMullen also conducted a second research project where IowaState researchers compared loins with high pH, low pH and from Berkshire genetics for sensory (taste) preference and acceptability. The results show that muscle-tissue pH seems to have a major influence on consumers’ sensory perception.

Consumer panelists didn’t identify a big difference between high-pH loins and those from Berkshire hogs, but low-pH loins stood out negatively. The Berkshire loins were the top choice for flavor; while high-pH and Berkshire loins scored well for tenderness and juiciness.

In this study, even though consumers preferred the darker colored, high-pH loins and the Berkshire loins, nearly 75 percent chose the low-pH loins from the meatcase, because they had the lightest color.

While the “Other White Meat” campaign has boosted pork’s recognition, it also has consumers thinking that light-colored meat is best. “They don’t know that light-colored pork probably won’t give them the best eating experience; and they think marbling equals too much fat,” says McMullen.

So the industry’s consumer education challenge continues. McMullen also notes that the two studies suggest that niche marketers in particular could benefit from aggressive consumer education and marketing programs. “If you want to achieve premium prices, you have to promote your premium traits,” he notes.

As for commercial pork producers, continuous improvement of pork quality traits is still the path to increasing consumer demand.