Try a Little Tenderness

Featured in Farm Journal’s PORK.

The pork chops you just lifted off your grill in the backyard look delicious: thick, meaty and juicy. Your knife easily cuts through and the light pink center lets you know they’re cooked perfectly. You raise the fork to your mouth for that pivotal first bite… Is it everything you’d hoped for?

Pork quality has grown in importance across the industry’s value chain. That focus encourages discussions up and down the supply chain, including with genetic suppliers, says Dan Hamilton, Ph.D., director of product validation and technical services for PIC. The company selects for pork quality through traits like loin pH, lean color and marbling, and recently added tenderness as a trait with a high correlation to consumer satisfaction. 

“Pork pH and marbling are predictors of what we believe consumer eating quality will be, but tenderness correlates directly with that customer’s first bite into their pork purchase,” Hamilton explains.

Consumer trends change
Consumer trends have fluctuated over the last 70 years. In the 1930s and 40s, fat was needed for the war effort, and producers obliged with big-bodied, thick pigs. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, there was a push for low-fat, lean meat, as consumers became more health-conscious. Then, beginning a few years ago, the general consensus was that fat wasn’t so bad anymore. 

“As consumer desires have evolved over time the industry evolves to meet that demand,” says Brandon Fields, applied meat science manager with PIC. He works closely with customers and the packing industry to help them optimize the genetic potential created in the genetics PIC sells.

“With this most recent change, we have managed to develop genetic methods of controlling fat percentage and where that fat is laid down, to an extent,” Fields says. “Genetically speaking, we’re able to increase intramuscular fat while keeping backfat at the same level.”

Fields admits change takes time. 

“The typical flow of our work means that, at best, we will be three to five years down the line before the consumer will experience any genetic changes that we have made,” he says. “We have to keep our crystal ball well-shined and keep a check on where the numbers are pointing in order to stay with the flow of consumer trends.”

The direction the pork industry takes is based on what consumers want, and what economics dictate, Hamilton points out.

“We can do anything as an industry; it just needs to be the right thing,” he says. “It’s a matter of supply and demand.” 

In other words, as long as customers (pork producers), retailers and consumers want higher, more differentiated pork quality, it will continue to be a high priority in genetic selection. 

“Pork quality is a big topic right now,” points out Hamilton. “We’re supportive of that industry direction and we have good data to back it up. Pork quality should continue to improve over time. We’re excited about where we’re positioned and are pushing this effort forward. But, we’re still cognizant of cost of production. Pigs still need to be robust, feed-efficient, and fast growing, and to provide overall carcass value.”

Inconsistency a problem
The Pork Checkoff has been involved with producer-led pork-quality projects and initiatives for more than 25 years. “The objective has always been to create more value to all segments of the pork chain by producing a better, more consistent product for all consumers,” it states on the website, noting “a consumer barrier to fresh pork sales is an inconsistent eating experience.”

It states that U.S. pork consumption has been relatively flat during the past 20 years at about 50 lbs. per year, but protein sales are increasing, including pork sales. The National Pork Board’s goal is to drive stronger demand and consumption of pork. 

A meat scientist’s view
Meat scientists observe numerous factors – both objective and subjective – to determine fresh pork quality, says David Newman, a meat scientist at Arkansas State University. These factors may include critical measurements like pH, subjective color, objective color, subjective marbling, percent of fat, objective tenderness, fat quality and sensory measurements like tenderness and juiciness, he notes.

“Normally, we look at these conditions at 24-hour post-mortem in a processing facility once the carcass has cooled,” Newman said in an article on earlier this year. “This allows us to quantify the many different factors that affect pork quality. For example, a different feed ingredient, a new genetic line or another isolated change could influence pork quality. 

When buying pork in the grocery store, he recommends looking at color and marbling. “Each of these factors can be a predictor of all the things a meat scientist looks at and, as humans, we have amazing tools and talents to make these assessments,” he says. 

Increase pork sales
To grow demand, the industry needs to better define the quality attributes of the pork loin to provide a more consistent pork eating experience, says the National Pork Board. “There are three keys to a consistent pork eating experience: consumer-recognized pork cut names; an understanding of the ideal end-point cooking temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit followed by a 3-minute rest; and the recognizable pork quality attributes consisting of color (redness) and marbling (fat content).”

Products in the meat case will continue to evolve, which means consumers need to know what attributes to look for. That may mean a darker pork chop or loin roast compared to what they may have chosen in the past, as well as a little more marbling. 

It also means continuing education on proper cooking temperatures.

“The rule to keep in mind is simply to use a meat thermometer…,” Newman says. “Degree of doneness is critical to a good eating experience. In other words, even if you select a great piece of quality pork for your next meal, you (and your guests) will miss a quality eating experience if the pork is overcooked.”

Hamilton agrees: “Cooking temperature can make something better or it can ruin it really quickly. The industry has done a lot of work on promoting proper cooking temperatures, but that education process needs to continue.”