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It’s Time to Pay for Pork Quality

Steve Meyer

December 2, 2013

4 Min Read
It’s Time to Pay for Pork Quality

That shuffling sound you hear is me dragging out my soapbox once again. I’ve now positioned it squarely in front of you and will proceed with this week’s edition of a rant you have read before. Don’t worry. I’m right there behind your computer monitor or whatever electronic gizmo you are holding in your hand.

The subject of my rant will once again be pork quality. The occasion is a near disaster this past week when we chose pork loin (or, as I call it “Meat you can truly be thankful for!”) as our Thanksgiving entrée. To say the least, I was not particularly thankful for this one.

The trouble started the previous night when we decided to have a “breakfast” supper of pork chops, eggs, biscuits and gravy. Growing up in Oklahoma, I know a thing or two about the proper way to chicken fry steak or chops and my family especially likes chicken fried boneless chops. I knew we were in trouble as soon as I sliced into the vacuum packaging: Lots of purge. Cutting a few slices for chops revealed the ideal color for an “Other White Meat,” I suppose. This loin was no PSE (pale, soft and exudative) but it was close. The dinner was good. Chicken fry about anything and don’t burn it and it will turn out edible. But we all got a lot of chewing practice.

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Six hours of brining in a salt and sugar solution and a wonderful peach sauce (check out the recipe for “Smokey Peach Pork Loin” at www.beinspired.com!) saved the Thanksgiving meal. Good but not great. But how many of the people who buy our product would have known to do those things? And to cook it to only 145 degrees F. and let it rest at least 3 minutes? I’m sure that without the brining and with only a little overcooking, this product would have been almost inedible.

And before anyone says, “Oh that’s only an outlier,” you’d better think again. This is not the first time I’ve witnessed such quality, and I fear it won’t be the last.

Further, don’t think for a minute that no one else has noticed. Figure 1 shows the ratio (stated as a percentage) of individual primal values to the pork cutout since 1998. By definition, some cuts have to sell for more than 100% of the cutout and some have to sell for less than 100%. That some are higher and some are lower is not the point. But look at the trends.

wholesale pork cut prices

The lowest two values on record for loins were recorded in August and September. October BARELY got above the previous low, a downward spike in November 2004. And it’s no surprise what has taken up the slack – bellies and bacon! That “healthy” cut has routinely sold for 1.5 times the cutout value this year while starting the period at less than the cutout value. If this chart ran back to the 1990s, the story for bacon would be even more dramatic.

And what does bacon have that the loins don’t? Yes, fat, but I would argue that the important factors are flavor and convenience. Putting bacon on just about anything makes it better and you can buy bacon in lots of easy-to-use forms, not the least of which is as an ingredient on dozens of foodservice sandwiches.

“But ribs have fallen, too,” some might say. And I would say, “Yes, and that is another problem.” I doubt that the decline in rib (and this is spareribs, not backribs) prices is quality related, however. My guess is that it is simply a function of larger and larger hogs, and thus larger and larger slabs of spareribs. You can only sell a cooked slab or half-slab for so much, so if they get bigger, the per-pound price is pressured downward by buyers.

So what do we do? There are several actions that come to mind, but the bottom line is that we must begin paying for quality and penalizing loins like I served last week. “Oh, we can’t do that since we can’t break a loin/observe lean/fly over the moon/etc./etc/etc.” To which I say, “NOTHING EVER CHANGES BY DOING THE SAME THING YOU’VE ALWAYS DONE!”

There was a time when people thought we couldn’t raise lean hogs. We know how that came out, but it happened only after the chicken industry cleaned our clocks with consumers. Must it happen again before we take action? I really hope not.

North American pork industry data, Nov. 30

Competing meats, Nov. 30

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About the Author(s)

Steve Meyer

Partners for Production Agriculture

Steve Meyer joins Kerns and Associates, Ames, Iowa. As Kerns team member, Meyer will be speaking, developing and delivering economic data and analyses, and working with our clients to provide critical perspectives as they benchmark and drive risk management decisions.

Previously, Meyer served as vice president of Pork Analysis for EMI. Meyer conducted ongoing analysis of hog and pork markets. In a former role, as president of Paragon, he also monitored and analyzed cattle, beef and poultry markets to meet the needs of his diverse set of clients. He served for 12 years as an author of The Daily Livestock Report sponsored by CME Group, an e-newsletter whose circulation grew steadily following its introduction in 2003. In addition, he writes a feature article for National Hog Farmer’s NHF Daily e-letter that focuses on economic issues in North America’s swine/pork sector.

Prior to founding Paragon Economics, Meyer served as director of Economics for the National Pork Producers Council and National Pork Board from 1993-2002. In that capacity, he provided economic counsel to producers and NPPC/NPB staff and coordinated staff and consultants’ activities regarding meat industry production and price forecasts and the economic impact of pork production and processing. He also administered NPPC/NPB programs dealing with marketing and pricing systems, industry structure, coordination and competitiveness. Since leaving the NPB staff, Meyer has served as the organizations’ consulting economist. In addition, he spent three years as an assistant professor in the agriculture economics department at the University of Missouri.

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