The pork industry has come a long way toward addressing pork quality concerns, thanks to nearly two decades of focus on red-flag areas that potentially impact consumers’ decisions at the meat case.

“The 1993 National Pork Board-sponsored Pork Chain Quality Audit resulted in a list of non-conformities for different market segments that significantly impacted live animal, carcass and pork cut value,” explains Roger Johnson, director of pork quality at Farmland Foods, Inc.

Reflecting on a short list of industry changes he has seen over the years, Johnson offered these thoughts:
• Excessive fat, inadequate color and water-holding capacity — These three carcass characteristics topped the list of concerns in 1993. “I think we have addressed these three issues from an industry standpoint extremely well,” Johnson states.

Genetic and nutritional programs have helped producers make real progress in reducing fat, which has a direct impact on consumer perceptions.

“I assure you, we would not be holding our position today with regard to demand and consumption if we had not addressed the fat problem. Furthermore, if color and water-holding capacity had not been improved, pork consumption would be greatly reduced because other protein sources would have provided a superior product in the eyes of the consumer,” Johnson says.
• Inconsistent weights (live, carcass, primal cuts) — Packers depend on consistent weights and quality and, therefore, have used premiums and discounts to direct producers toward preferred weight and lean percentage parameters.

“Although market weights have increased significantly during the past 20 years, consistency in weight is still a major issue to packers and processors. It is tough when your market has been pushing weights higher and you have to ask yourself, are you ahead of the curve, on the curve or behind the curve? Some of how you address it depends on your production system, but marketing consistency is important, too,” he notes.

Improvements in primal sorting techniques in packing plants have helped solve the problem of inconsistent cut weights. In the early ’90s, some plants weren’t set up to do a real good job of sorting loins based on weight, Johnson says. Most loins fell between a 15- to 22-lb. weight range, and few producers were marketing bigger pigs with loins weighing 25 to 27 lb.

“If one of the bigger loins went into a box with the 15-lb. loin, for example, it really looked bad and was objectionable to the distributor and retailer,” he says.

Efficiencies on loin-boning lines in today’s processing plants mean heavy and light loins are sent in different directions.
• Excessive bruising and blood splash — Improved animal handling throughout the pork chain has helped decrease problems like excessive bruising and blood splash. Producers are more conscious about building and equipment designs that make animal handling go more smoothly. Truckers utilize more animal-friendly paddles and sort boards.

“Moving away from the use of heavy sort boards and electric prods has really helped reduce the incidence of bruises,” Johnson explains.

Packing plant operators have also given careful thought to improving live animal processing and holding facilities as part of an increased focus on animal welfare.

Johnson credits the increased use of carbon dioxide (C02) methods of stunning vs. electrical stunning for helping decrease the incidence of bruising as well as problems related to blood splash in pork cuts. Blood splash can be seen as a pinprick-sized blood pattern in the center of the loin or ham. This appears due to extreme pressure in the circulatory system when the animal is improperly stunned.
• Excessive primal trim loss due to skin conditions or abscesses — Johnson points out that the number of abscesses has greatly diminished since the 1990s. He believes the improvement is due to a combination of factors, including growing use of needleless injection. “And I think the pharmaceutical companies have worked with the equipment manufacturers to greatly improve needle and syringe design,” he explains.
• Too-frequent carcass contamination and condemnations — The incidence of carcass contamination, condemnation and skin trimming losses has declined as producers have dealt effectively with pig respiratory problems causing lung adhesions, and mange causing skin problems, Johnson says. Improvements in processing equipment, plant design and employee training mean fewer carcasses are contaminated by mishandled internal organs and contents during the harvest process.
• Too many bad splits — “In the early 1990s, we were still marketing a large percentage of our pork loins as bone-in loins,” Johnson explains. “Therefore, the process of splitting a carcass into two equal halves was extremely important. The goal of a proper split was to put half of the backbone with each of the loins. If the split was off, one side had significantly more bone than the other side, and was a less-desired product by both the retailer and the consumer. Today, more loins are marketed as boneless products, so the balance of the backbone between the two loins is not as important.”
• Inadequate muscling — Though inadequate muscling was a concern in 1993, it’s rarely a problem today. “I think a large portion of the change resulted from genetic improvement, but increased target market weights also reduced the incidence of light-muscled pigs,” he says. “We don’t see the really lightweight, light-muscled pigs coming through the plants these days.”
• Thin bellies and fat quality issues — Many of the issues related to thin bellies were resolved by marketing pigs at heavier weights, Johnson says. In some cases, even though the live production side and the processing plants may have moved to heavier weights, bacon production may still be operating under standards set in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The under-15-lb. belly that has been the bacon industry’s bread and butter is no longer the same belly it was 15 years ago because the composition has changed,” he explains. A belly of equal weight that may have been considered a fatter belly in the past may be among some of the leaner bellies today.
• Fat quality problems — Quality issues arise from both the quantity and quality of the fat that is present. “As a packer, we can’t completely correct fat quality,” Johnson states. “That is something the production side almost totally controls. Once that pig is at the plant, there isn’t much we as packers can do to counter fat quality problems.”

Consistency is Key

Even with all of the industry’s progress, Johnson says the one issue that remains at the top of his list is consistency of the hogs delivered. “As long as the producer is delivering a normal, bell-shaped distribution curve, I can live with that,” he says. “When you are dealing with a biological system, like pig production, you can’t have every pig fall within a very narrow weight range and a very narrow percent lean.

“Environment plays a part in the pigs’ development, even with similar genetic backgrounds. The problem we run into is if the market pigs from a producer are unpredictable; in other words, inconsistently inconsistent,” he says. “Consistent inconsistency allows us to develop operational and marketing strategies for maximum utilization of the available product. Inconsistent inconsistency creates numerous challenges in the production of highly demanded products.”

Johnson urges producers to keep focusing on improving pork quality. “The mere fact that we did create a list of things we wanted to correct in 1993 made it possible for us, as an industry, to attack these pork quality challenges,” he notes. “However, if you create a list of problems and you correct those problems, new problems or concerns will always develop and move to the top of the list. You never completely get rid of a list of non-conformities that you need to work on.”

Always focus on the customer, he emphasizes to producers. The customer is both the packer and the ultimate end user, he reminds.

Lora Berg is a freelance writer from Lakeville, MN.