Meat Matters: Is Bigger Better?

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By Anna Dilger with Hannah Price

A king-sized candy bar. A few more zeros in your bank account. A truck with more horsepower. Bigger is always better. But is that true when it comes to the size of pigs? 

Market weights of livestock are on the rise. Cattle, chickens and pigs going to market are heavier today than 20 years ago. Comparing 2018 to 1995, weights of pigs have increased 17% in this time period while cattle weights have increased 14% and weights of broiler chickens increased 34%. 

As live weights increase, so do carcass weights. Since 1995, the average carcass weight of U.S. pigs has increased by 31 pounds at a relatively steady rate of about 1.4 pounds per year. Projecting this weight increase forward, today’s carcass weights of 210 pounds are expected to be 230 pounds in 2030 and 260 pounds in 2050. Translating that into live market weights, the current market pigs average about 283 pounds. If current rates of increases hold steady, pigs are projected to weigh 310 pounds in 2030 and 350 pounds in 2050.

Why the increase? A dilution of fixed production cost is a major force that drives the increase of market weight because the total number of pigs required to produce a given quantity of pork is reduced. Pigs have also been selected for increased growth rates and feed efficiency leading to more pounds produced in a similar time with less feed than before. 

Even though this represents an increase in efficiency within the pork industry, it raises some concerns. Are barns, trailers and processing facilities equipped to handle pigs that large? Do we understand the nutritional requirements of these pigs? And of most interest to a meat scientist like me, do heavier pigs produce high quality pork?

Recently, some have suggested that chicken meat quality issues like woody breast and white striping may be a result of the rapid growth and heavy market weights of modern commercial broilers. These quality defects have pork producers concerned as they observe market weight increases in their own industry. 

Those concerns were addressed in a recently completed study funded by the National Pork Board. Researchers from the University of Illinois, Kansas State University, the Meat Animal Research Center of the USDA, and PIC evaluated the meat quality of pigs with heavier live weights. Pigs were marketed at live weights ranging from 230 to 400 pounds. 

As expected, when pigs were marketed at heavier weights, they produced heavier carcasses with heavier loins, hams, shoulders and bellies. Heavier carcasses chilled more slowly than lighter carcasses—a concern of packers with increasing carcass weights. However, this delay in chilling did not impair meat quality. 

When it came to loin chops, heavier carcasses held the advantage. As carcass weight increased, trained sensory panelists rated loin chops more tender. Water-holding capacity measured as loin purge loss and cook loss from chops was reduced as carcasses got heavier. Consumer panels resulted in similar outcomes with consumers rating chops from heavier pigs more tender and juicy. This most recent study echoes previous results from other universities. Heavier pigs either produced more tender pork, or there were no differences between the pork from heavier and lighter animals. 

So, for pork production, is bigger better? The answer seems to be yes. At this time, pork producers can feel comfortable that increases in market weights will not result in poor quality pork. When producers and packers realize the benefit of economies of scale in producing heavier pigs and consumers continue to enjoy a high-quality eating experience, everyone wins big. 

More Meat Matters:

What’s the Big Deal About Pork Quality?

Overcooking Pork Should be a Rare Occurence

Pork Q&A: Meet Dr. Anna Dilger with Meat Matters

Gen Z: Who Will They Believe?