In the last 10 years, the U.S. pork industry has made dramatic progress in the production of leaner, heavier muscled pigs.

This continued emphasis on leaner hogs has a downside, however. The push to mass-produce leaner, more economical hogs has resulted in pork that is less appealing.

One of the underlying causes of pork's deteriorating quality is genetics. Currently, industry breeding schemes create pigs that grow fast and efficiently but lack the superior meat and eating quality consumers prefer.

Results of the National Barrow Show (NBS) Sire Progeny Tests and other national testing programs conducted by National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) have guided the industry to focus on meat quality. Branded and value-added pork products that are distinguished by meat quality traits, breed or line and management practices are more numerous today.

The NBS Sire Progeny Test Summary, starting on page S3, outlines the breed differences that are available to producers if they want to place increased emphasis on meat quality traits.

Berkshires have the best ultimate pH, color, tenderness, drip loss and cooking loss. Durocs have a significant advantage in lipid content (marbling or intramuscular fat) and are very good in all other quality traits. Chester Whites also scored well in the quality traits of pH, drip percent, cooking loss and Instron measures.

Three value-added or niche marketing programs that take advantage of the Duroc and Berkshire breeds' meat quality traits are discussed.

Truline Premium Pork One breeder who has taken advantage of the documented performance of his genetics in pork quality tests is Everett Forkner, Richards, MO. Forkner has utilized this information in developing the Truline Premium Pork Program, which assists customers in receiving a premium price for quality market hogs.

Truline Premium Pork is a franchised production and marketing program of high-quality pork and pork products. Forkner used the documented, superior performance of Truline genetic lines in meat quality comparisons as the basis for the program. To participate in the program, all production must come from a total Truline breeding system based on Duroc terminal sires. In addition, "certified production herds" must implement herd health, nutrition, handling and management recommendations.

Currently, pigs for the Truline Premium Pork label are all slaughtered at one packing plant. To be marketed in the program, pork must have a pH of 5.6 or above and meet specific color, percent lean and other quality traits.

Forkner's branded program has proven it is possible to move from producing commodity pork driven by quantity to premium pork driven by quality.

Five-Star Duroc Pork A core group of Duroc breeders, recognizing their pork product was superior to many others commonly available on the commodity market, founded Five-Star Duroc Pork.

The NBS Sire Progeny Tests and NPPC Terminal Line Genetic Evaluation Program (1995) have demonstrated that premium loin products from Duroc pigs deliver outstanding flavor, tenderness, juiciness and natural marbling. These attributes are highly sought after by "white table cloth" restaurant chefs.

Both programs documented that purebred Durocs and Duroc-sired crossbreds have a higher percentage of intramuscular fat than other lines. This higher degree of intramuscular fat contributes to optimum juiciness and flavor without the need for injection of moisture-enhancing products.

This group of breeders is committed to produce and deliver quality, fresh, certified Five-Star Duroc Pork products to the U.S. foodservice industry.

The group's strategy includes:

* Contracting with certified Duroc producers to deliver high-quality Duroc pigs to a specified packer;

* Coordinating movement of branded, certified and identity-preserved products through the supply chain; and

* Promoting certified Five-Star Duroc Pork to the end-user and consumer.

Five-Star Duroc Pork owes its beginning to a research project on country hams funded by National Swine Registry (NSR) and conducted by Kenneth Stalder at the University of Tennessee. This project was designed to compare the processing qualities of hams from purebred Duroc market pigs to hams from the commodity market. Hams from more than 550 purebred pigs were studied.

The loins from these pigs were marketed by a wholesale distributor to selected chefs in the foodservice industry. The chefs were extremely excited about the prospect of a dependable supply of premium pork products. From that marketing effort, an idea was born.

Five-Star Duroc Pork will work closely with chefs and food distribution companies to develop outstanding pork menu items and promote these menu items to restaurant clientele.

Pigs in the Five-Star Duroc Pork system will be purebred Durocs raised by producers in the Midwest. All pigs will be free of the stress gene and will be raised according to rigid production, management and health specifications.

Berkshire Gold National meat quality evaluations have been very favorable to the Berkshire breed. Results of the NBS Sire Progeny Tests show Berkshires to be the best in processing and consumer preference traits such as ultimate pH, drip loss, cooking loss and tenderness. The tests also verify that Berkshire pigs are the fattest with the least amount of carcass lean. These results were repeated in the National Terminal Sire Line Genetic Evaluation Results (1995) and the Quality Lean Growth Modeling Program (1998).

Results of these programs have given Berkshire breeders a unique opportunity to fill a premium market.

The American Berkshire Association (ABA) has three meat quality certification programs:

* Berkshire Gold for crossbred Berkshire pigs;

* Royal Berkshire Pork for purebred Berkshire pigs used in the U.S. meat markets, and

* 100% Pure Berkshire Pork for export of purebred Berkshire meat.

The ABA manages these programs through the Berkshire Meat Products, L.L.C. J. Steve Price, Fair Play, MO, serves as their chief executive officer.

The activity aimed at capitalizing on the Berkshires' quality attributes began in 1993 with Berkshire Gold carcass sampling for Japanese markets. Sioux Preme Pack, Sioux Center, IA, was the first packer involved with marketing the crossbred Berkshire carcasses. Later, John Morrell, Farmland Foods, Indiana Packing Co., Sun Husker, Allied Foods, Day Lee, Independent Meats, SIG International and IBP Inc. entered the program as marketers of crossbred and/or purebred Berkshire pork to Japan.

Berkshire breeders promoted the use of sire/dam pedigrees to validate these shipments for export. By 1997, 219,811 pigs were marketed in the ABA programs for export to Japan.

The Japanese economy collapse of 1998 reduced export pig sales to 141,680 pigs. And, Japanese consumers, who were paying large premiums for U.S. Berkshire crossbreds, began to question the breed purity of the product. A Japanese committee reviewed the Berkshire marketing situation, and in April 1999, it ruled only purebred Berkshire pigs could produce pork for the premium market.

Sales of crossbred Berkshire pork dropped after this announcement. However, a very strong market currently exists. Premiums of at least $10/cwt. (live weight) are paid.

Summary Because the industry has many markets to serve with many different requirements, opportunities for the development of niche markets are numerous. While some producers may try to meet all markets by producing pork that is simply of "normal" quality with acceptable meat composition, others will develop specific products for specific markets.

Use of purebred animals with excellent meat quality, such as Berkshires, Durocs and possibly Chester Whites, must be balanced with the extra cost of producing purebred market pigs. Purebred pigs sold/sow/year may be much lower than the 18-22 pigs range that good producers of crossbred pigs realize. However, since purebred market pig production requires intensive management skills, it may be a good opportunity for those with such skills. Extra attention to marketing and documentation of quality is also necessary to succeed in a niche market.

Producers must manage all the costs of these alternative systems to realize added value.