Closeup of pork cuts Getty Images/Sean Gallup

Consistent pork quality is imperative

Meat quality means different things to different people, so the meat industry needs to be able to provide a consistent product, regardless of what characteristics can be found in that cut.

The key to selling any product is to present a product that the consuming public wants. Pork producers and promoters know the same is true with chops, hams and bacon. You give the consumer a quality pork product, and you won’t be able to keep it in the meat department of grocery stores.

Steve Larsen, National Pork Board assistant vice president of science and technology, says it is just as important to give the consumer a consistent product as it is to give them a quality product.

“Consistency, consistency, consistency” is key, Larsen says. He is responsible for the development and implementation of pre- and post-harvest pork safety. He has oversight and administers preharvest and postharvest safety and pork quality research efforts on the part of the Pork Checkoff and works directly with the checkoff’s Pork Safety, Quality and Human Nutrition Committee and other pre-and postharvest and pork quality advisory and task force groups.

“We know consumers all like different cuts of meat,” Larsen says. “Some like the lighter-colored pork chop, some like the darker chop, and some like it in between. … We just want to be sure that when someone finds what they like, that they are able to consistently get that product. There is a home for each type of quality.”

Providing a consistent, quality product is the responsibility of the entire pork product chain, and the Pork Checkoff is doing its part to get all parties aligned — a true farm-to-fork process. Consumers are telling retailers what they look for in a cut of pork, with retailers forwarding that information to the packer, who then requests producers to provide an animal that can amply furnish the preferred finished product. Again, all of this needs to be done on a consistent basis.

Pork Checkoff

In an attempt to get the entire “pork team” on the same page, Larsen and Jarrod Sutton, NPB vice president of domestic marketing, met with seven packers to update them on the NPB’s Pork Quality Initiative, and they received “great feedback,” according to Larsen. “Have you thought of this? You know we still don’t have traceability; we still don’t have the technology to measure at line speed.”

Because of that, the NPB Pork Safety, Quality and Human Nutrition Committee has funded three different technologies that have the ability to measure pork quality at line speed. Larsen says these three technologies vary in application, identification and sorting methods, “so they all bring different pros and cons to the table depending on what the packer or technology company wants to offer.”

Larsen says the individual packers decide which, if any, of these technologies to install on a pilot program. “It’s one thing to do research, but it’s quite different to install the equipment and have them run all day, every day,” he says.

These technologies measure pork quality attributes that line up with consumer demand — color, marbling and tenderness.

The technologies consist of a camera or near-infrared technology, and wavelength scans will produce a logarithm that will provide a numerical value for each of the three factors of color, marbling and tenderness. “Our quality break points are based on consumer satisfaction,” Larsen says. “Ultimately, we want to get better consistency in the meat case. That’s what we’re looking for. Research has shown that the consumer wants consistency.”

Which technologies, if any, the packing plants adopt will depend on each individual plant’s specifics. “All of this is voluntary,” Larsen says. “Packers will decide independently which works best for them in their existing plant, with the footprint and capabilities that they are working within.”

Pork Checkoff

The Pork Checkoff has developed quick pictorials to help consumers identify color and marbling standards for pork loin chops. Steve Larsen, NPB assistant vice president of science and technology, says there are a couple of ways to look at a cut of pork: More marbling is often associated with better flavor, and darker chops are associated with a better eating experience. However, from a consistency point of view, a color score of 4 and 5 will yield the same eating experience; likewise, a color score 1 and 2 will have the same eating experience. The amount of marbling and the color of a pork cut comes down to consumer preference, and the key for the pork industry is being able to provide a consistent product, regardless of consumer preference.

Right now, the pork industry lacks the identifying pork quality factors at retail. An example is prime, choice and select as found in the beef industry. “Beef has those labels that no matter where you go, you know what you’re going to get and it looks the same,” he says. “We don’t have that, and that’s what we’re looking to work toward to get that consistency for the consumer.”

Research has shown that a certain color score with a certain marbling score will give consistency, “and we just divide it up into three buckets (prime, choice, select), so these technologies will be able to take those measures and tell you which ‘bucket’ it should go into. Each has different correlation — some good, some not so good.” Larsen uses prime, choice and select as examples, but the pork industry has yet to determine which terms, if any, will be used.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service already has a volunteer grading system for pork, but it was last updated in 1985. “When you think of a pig from 1985, this is no longer applicable or relevant to today’s production,” Larsen says. AMS is set to update the standards on record to be more aligned with the current consumer demand for consistent quality of color and marbling.

In the meantime, Larsen says the technology companies are working with packers to allow trial periods with the equipment to experience the functionality in real-world settings. “This will also allow the packers to see what kind of quality they have, what’s going through their system, determine which ‘bucket’ their product will fall into,” Larsen says. “If they want to be in the ‘prime’ market, but 80% of their loins are in the choice and select market, then they know that they need to talk with their producers to get them to work into the prime market before this even gets implemented, so it gives them some time to figure out what they have and adjust where they want to play.”

Larsen points out that it’s not a case of packers not knowing what quality is going out the door, “but this technology will give them a better idea of what they have in the plant. … Packers that segregate loins for the export market may have a better idea of the quality product that they have.”

Regardless of what an updated AMS grading system looks like, or which, if any, technologies packing plants install, Larsen stresses that all of this is voluntary.

Even though the AMS grading system may be in need of updating, the pork chain has not been held back. The Pork Checkoff has attempted to stay in front of the consumer trends in meat tastes, regardless of what they may be. “The board and committee have been supportive. We want to get the recognition for producing a high-quality, consistent product. Once we can get a consistent product, we know we can increase repeat purchases, which will increase demand and sell more pork,” he says.

As consumers demand a specific quality of pork, the retailer will then ask the packer to help meet that demand.

Ancillary to pork quality, Larsen and his team continue to get the word out about proper cooking temperatures, “because even if you have the best-quality chop, you can ruin it by cooking it to 160-165 degrees Fahrenheit,” Larsen says. “We need to do more education with the consumer about endpoint cooking temperature.”

The Pork Checkoff is battling what Larsen calls generational thinking, when it comes to cooking pork. “Older generations may say that we have to really cook the pork well-done.” He says this is often said by consumers cooking pork to a higher temperature. “USDA approved an end-point temperature of 145 degrees with a three-minute rest, but some people may not have gotten that message.”

The accepted cooking temperature of 145 (with a three-minute rest) has been in place for a couple of years, and Larsen agrees it might not hurt to reinforce that message. “We did a lot of research and really promoted the 145 (at the time it was unveiled), but now it may be time to re-engage the consumer to familiarize them with the 145 endpoint cooking temp.

“We want to sell the pork we have coming on the market,” Larsen says. “Research shows that this will help sell more pork. Whether domestically or internationally, a standard to help with consistency will help sell more pork.”

Mike King, NPB director of science communications, says talking about “quality” is basically a matter of semantics: Quality itself doesn’t mean anything.

“There’s good and bad quality, and that’s subjective,” unless you have a way of quantifying that, he notes. “Until you are introduced to a different ‘quality’ you may say, ‘No, this is what I like.’ And I think that we are seeing that in some of the demographic breakouts” along ethnic lines of what people have become accustomed to over time.

“It’s not to say that one is better than another one, but when they go to a store or a restaurant, they want to be able to count on it,” King says.

Without getting hung up on the term “quality,” Larsen says quality plays into the overall pork picture, along with nomenclature and end-point cooking temperature.

“We can give you the ‘quality’ that you want, but let’s teach you how to pick out the chop that you like because the nomenclature is relatively new to the pork industry, and let’s teach you to use a thermometer to get that consistent endpoint cooking temperature. Don’t visually assess color; that thermometer is key.”

King says the pork industry has worked back from the consumer; rather than force-feeding the consumer what the industry wants, the industry is asking the consumer what they desire.

“We’re only as good as our weakest link, so we need to be able to manage the on-farm components,” Larsen says. “So you have the genetics, nutrition and management of the pigs — PQA Plus (Pork Quality Assurance) guidelines, welfare issues, transportation of those pigs to the plant, proper withdrawal time of feed — all are going to be important.

“And then once they get to the plant, allowing them to rest. Every program we do, TQA [Transport Quality Assurance], PQA Plus and in-plant audits are so valuable to say ‘hey we’re watching these pigs and handling them appropriately.’ All that is going to be key. Not sure one is more important than another; we just need to make sure the entire chain is maintained to ensure adequate handling.”

Cold chain management is also key once the pork cuts have left the plant on their way to the retail outlet. “We’re doing all this right now, so it’s not anything above and beyond that we’re going to be doing,” Larsen says. “It’s just maintaining those high levels of efficiencies throughout the chain, so one link isn’t any weaker than another.”

Although Larsen and King see the importance of developing a nomenclature that will become identifiable by consumers, that may be on the back burner until consumers demand such labels, but the Pork Checkoff wants to be ready.

In the end, providing a consistent, quality product is up to the entire pork chain, ultimately driven by the consumer. Consumers will demand a specific product from their retailer, who will demand a certain product from the packer, who will then ask the producer to provide a hog that can meet the consumer demand.

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