Pork quality has a tremendous impact on your eating experience, and nothing is more important to farmers than providing a safe, wholesome product for you to enjoy. Enhancing the quality of pork has taken time. Improvements in breeding and genetics have allowed farmers to produce pigs that grow faster and more efficiently. This has resulted in pork products that are more uniform in color and taste, and healthier for consumers. The pork industry wants to work toward a consistent eating experience for all consumers.

The Pork Checkoff has been involved with producer-led meat-quality projects and initiatives for more than 25 years. The objective has always been to create more value to all segments of the pork chain by producing a better, more consistent product for all consumers. The Checkoff has studied the barriers to increasing fresh pork purchases and consumption at a time when protein is in demand. The majority of pork consumed is a processed product. A consumer barrier to fresh pork sales is an inconsistent eating experience. The average consumer buys fresh product just six times per year. (Nielsen Homescan Channel Facts; 52 weeks ending 6/28/13) Consumers gravitate toward processed pork products like deli ham, bacon and sausage because of flavor, ease of identification (i.e. no confusing names) and they’re easier to prepare (i.e. less concern for endpoint cooking temperature).

The three pillars of consistency

For the past 20 years, U.S. pork consumption has been relatively flat at about 50 pounds per person per year. Today, overall protein sales are increasing and pork has seen a modest increase. Pork’s focus must be to seize the opportunity to build upon this growth in consumption. (Steve Meyer, EMI 1997-2017 analysis)

The National Pork Board’s goal is to drive stronger demand and consumption of pork. Increased demand is good for the entire pork chain from farmers to packers/processors, as well as retailers and foodservice operators.

To grow demand, the industry needs to better define the quality attributes of the pork loin to provide a more consistent pork eating experience. There are three keys to a consistent pork eating experience: consumer-recognized pork cut names; an understanding of the ideal end-point cooking temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit followed by a 3-minute rest; and the recognizable pork quality attributes consisting of color (redness) and marbling (fat content).

Pork Quality Resources

Color and Marbling Standard score cards

Pork Quality Standards chart

Pork Quality Research

Effects of Pork Quality and Cooked Temperature on Consumer and Trained Sensory Perception of Eating Quality on Non-enhanced and Enhanced Pork Loins

Results indicate shear force (tenderness) and loin pH (color) were identified as the most important quality factors to consumer preference. Additionally, color will likely remain a valuable indicator of eating quality in the fresh state because visual appeal plays a large role in consumer point-of-purchase decisions.

2012 National Pork Retail Benchmarking Study

This research study provides retailers, processors, and other pork industry stakeholders with benchmark values of pork quality in center-cut loin chops, sirloin chops and blade steaks. The information collected will be used to identify areas of challenge and needed improvement in order to provide consumers with consistent, safe, high-quality pork products. Any attempt to develop a pork-grading standard requires knowledge of the mean and standard deviation of current pork quality measures in the retail pork supply.

The results should be compared to National Pork Board recommendations that color should be in a range of 3.0 to 5.0 and intramuscular fat “marbling” should be in the range of 2 to 4. In conclusion, these results demonstrate that a significant proportion of U.S. pork fails to meet standards associated with good eating quality. Results of this study also show that there is a considerable amount of variation in pork: within package, retail store and region.

The 2012 mean center-cut loin chop values for pork quality attributes measured were 3.12 (± 0.85) for subjective color, 2.48 (± 0.95) for subjective marbling, 55.30 (± 3.70) for Minolta L*, 5.86 (± 0.27) for pH, and 23.39 (± 6.82) for Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (tenderness).

2015 National Pork Retail Benchmarking Study

Similar to the 2012 National Pork Retail benchmarking Study, the results indicate there is variation in pork within package, retail store, and region. The 2015 mean center-cut loin chop values for pork quality attributes measured were 2.85 (± 0.79) for subjective color, 2.30 (± 1.07) for subjective marbling, 55.56 (± 3.63) for Minolta L*, 5.83 (± 0.32) for pH, and 24.25 (± 7.23) for Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (tenderness).

Consumer Validation of Pork Chop Quality Information

Objective was to determine consumer valuation of pork quality under different labeling situations. The key findings of the study include:

  • In the absence of quality labels (status quo situation), consumers in aggregate do not differentiate between high, medium, and lower quality pork chops.
    • This suggests limited awareness of color or marbling as pork quality attributes. It also reflects heterogeneous preferences with some preferring paler, leaner chops.
  • Across multiple labeling approaches, introduction of quality labels results in consumers on average revealing a stronger preference for higher quality pork chops. While quality grade labels boost willingness-to-pay for higher quality, the results of the study also suggest caution in that willingness-to-pay for chops assigned lower quality grades falls relative to the no-label scenario. A USDA “Prime,” “Choice,” and “Select” labeling approach appears most viable, potentially increasing revenue to the pork sector.

Evidence of consumer preference heterogeneity highlights that a sizeable segment currently prefers paler, leaner chops that would carry the lower quality grade in the new labeling system.