Boneless loin, backribs and the tenderloin are considered premium pork cuts, suitable for ordering in a restaurant or serving to guests. There is a great range of prices for these three cuts.

Fresh boneless loin chops cost about $4.00/lb. at the grocery store when sold as a store brand. The same chops sell for $14.00/lb. on the Internet with a brand that says the pigs were “humanely raised.” Other pork marketing messages include organic, genetic type, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised and produced in a “sustainable farming system.”

Naturally, the message you send and its cost of delivery can affect the final value of a market hog.

Exporters pay the most for quality loins, foodservice bids for the next best loins and retail markets distribute the remaining loins. Given this marketing process, it is no surprise that the greatest variation in loins is seen in U.S. retail meat counters.

While some consumers may not consider cured products — bacon or ham — as pork at all, there is no doubt that pork chops are recognized as the major fresh pork product. The fresh pork loin can be marketed as a high-value product without further processing.

Loin Primal Values

The untrimmed loin primals are about 18% of the weight of the live market hog. Two cutting styles are used to value these loins.

With cutting style 1, each trimmed Loin 410 (Figure 1) from a 250-lb. hog weighs 20.7 lb., and 24.5 lb. from a 290-lb. hog. The value of the Loin 410 (Figure 2), plus any loin trim, equals total loin value.

Cutting style 2 breaks the loin into boneless loin (Figure 3), tenderloin (Figure 4), backribs (Figure 5) and loin trim. Adding the value of these cuts, plus trim, is another way to determine the total value of the loin primal. The ability to market these premium cuts can have a large impact on the total hog value.

The composition and value of one loin primal is shown in Table 1. Prices for the loin cuts are the USDA Agricultural Market News Service weekly weighted average prices for 2001.

Choice of cutting styles does affect loin value. For example, the loin value for a 250-lb. hog with cutting style 1 is $24.70. The value using cutting style 2 is $25.32. The loin value for a 290-lb. hog with cutting style 1 is $29.35, while the value using cutting style 2 is $29.04.

A 290-lb hog produced a Loin 410 that had proportionately more fat and less loin muscle than a 250-lb hog using cutting style 2.

Pigs with larger loin muscles are clearly worth more to processors using cutting style 2. The heavier boneless loin is worth $1.84/lb. and there is less trim, which is worth only $0.49/lb. The total loin contribution to hog value (both loins) using cutting style 1 is $49.40 for a 250-pounder and $58.70 for a 290-pounder. This represents 35.5% of a 250-lb hog's value and 36.0% of a 290-lb hog's value.

Seasonal Swings

There are large seasonal price differences. Higher prices are paid from May through September, reflecting the active grilling season and reduced supply. Figure 1 shows the average monthly price for Loin 410 during the 1998-2001 period.

Figure 6 features 2001 monthly average prices for backribs, boneless loins and tenderloins. Backrib prices varied the most during the year.

Loin Quality

Standards for loin color, water-holding capacity and ultimate pH, in addition to growth, carcass leanness and reproduction, have been established for the “ideal” market gilt. This is a major addition to the common growth and leanness standards that producers have used for many years.

New loin color standards and marbling measurements were developed by industry specialists. These color standards are very important to exporters. A color score of 3 or higher is required for most export markets. Current pork quality measures involve loin and/or ham measurements, but new quality measurements for fresh and processed belly have been developed.

Size and quality of the loin muscle are very good indicators of the total value of a carcass, since the loin and ham weights are highly correlated. Most genetic selection programs measure the loin muscle area of live boars and gilts using real-time ultrasound equipment. This accurate measure, combined with high heritability of loin size, has allowed breeders to increase the average loin muscle size of commercial market hogs each year.

Unfortunately, increased loin muscle size is genetically negatively correlated with loin intramuscular fat content (marbling). Some foodservice and export markets prefer more marbling and will pay a higher price for smaller loins that meet their marbling standards.

Quality Tastes Differ

Quality means different things to the various members of the pork production-processing-merchandising chain. Ultimately, quality is defined as a wholesome product that tastes good to many consumers. Sensory trait research indicates pork tenderness is very important.

The amount of effort and investment to be put into pork quality improvement depends on its value to processors and consumers. Less drip and cooking losses are valuable to processors. More-tender pork is valuable to consumers. And, in an effort to add further value, many processors are deep-basting or marinating loin products with flavors.

Placing a value on pork quality is a new idea. It is difficult to estimate the economic value of pork quality improvements.

Table 1. Composition and Value of One Loin Primal from a 250- and 290-lb. Market Hog
250 lb.
Market Hog
290 lb.
Market Hog
Carcass Weight, lb. 183.9 216.1
Yield, % 73.6 74.5
Backfat, in. 0.95 1.08
Loin Muscle Area, sq in. 6.05 6.76
Cutting style 1
Loin 410 weight, lb. 20.7 24.5
Loin 410 price, $/lb. 1.16 1.16
Trim (72% lean) weight, lb. 1.4 1.9
Trim price, $/lb. 0.49 0.49
Cutting style 1 loin value, $ 24.70 29.35
Cutting style 2
Backribs, lb. 1.6 1.7
Backribs price (1.25-1.75 lb.), $/lb. 3.37 3.37
Boneless loin, lb. 5.6 6.4
Boneless loin price, $/lb. 1.84 1.84
Tenderloin, lb. 1.0 1.1
Tenderloin price, $/lb. 2.82 2.82
Trim (72% lean), lb. 13.9 17.2
Trim price, $/lb. 0.49 0.49
Cutting style 2 loin value, $ 25.32 29.04
Total Carcass Loin Value (style 1), $ 49.40 58.70

National pork checkoff-funded consumer preference studies were conducted in 1994 and 1998. These studies taste-tested fresh pork loin (broiled to 158° F.) against boneless chicken breast.

Results in 1994 showed consumers had a strong preference for increased tenderness. The 1998 trials found an interaction between loin ultimate pH and the Instron tenderness measures of the cooked pork chop. Higher loin ultimate pH is associated with darker color, more tenderness and lower drip and lower cooking losses. Lower Instron readings indicate increased tenderness. This means increasing value to consumers is a two-step process involving both traits. Results are shown in Table 2.

Base retail boneless loin price in the checkoff-funded Quality Lean Growth Modeling study was $3.49/lb. The loins with the highest ultimate pH and lowest Instron readings (most tender) were worth $4.72/lb.

Conventional wisdom in the meat business is to put tenderizing and flavoring agents in poorer quality pork. However, the interaction of high pH and tenderness suggests the highest value may be captured by making the best pork even more tender. A larger consumer premium for superior product is possible under this scenario. Berkshire and Chester White pigs have shown the ability to produce high pH, tender pork. The breeders of these pigs are trying to capture extra value by creating a specialty market for genetically branded pork.

There is greater variation in pork quality traits than the commonly selected traits of growth and leanness. Quality can be a profit factor along with growth and reproductive traits.

Table 2. Value of the Interaction of Loin Ultimate pH and Instron Tenderness
Instron Class, Kg
pH Class 6 5 4
5.8 0 $.75 $1.23
5.6 0 $.72 $.54
5.4 0 $.63 $.51
aFresh boneless loin premiums ($/lb. for changing INSTRON 1 Kg and pH 0.2 units.)
Source: QLGM, 1998