What’s the Big Deal About Pork Quality?

pork chop
( MGN image )

By Dr. David Newman, Arkansas State University

What is pork quality? 

Admittedly, this is a loaded question that I get asked all the time in my role at Arkansas State University. And it has no simple answer. We throw the term “quality” around, but we can seldom come to agreement in the industry on a true definition of quality. This is likely due to the very nature that defining quality can be subjective. 

We want consumers to have a good eating experience, but who is the final judge? As a meat scientist, I can demonstrate that a good eating experience occurs when you eat a quality product. In terms of science, this relates to pork’s quality attributes of color, marbling and end-point cooking temperature that create a juicy, tender and flavorful eating experience.  

What do scientists have to say about it?
Research shows many consumers associate the term quality with a product that is fresh and wholesome. These are certainly important characteristics for food safety. Fortunately, in the U.S., we have one of the best food safety systems in the world; freshness and wholesomeness are rarely an issue. 

Meat scientists observe numerous factors – both objective and subjective – to determine fresh pork quality. These factors may include critical measurements like pH, subjective color, objective color, subjective marbling, percent of fat, objective tenderness, fat quality and sensory measurements like tenderness and juiciness. 

Normally, we look at these conditions at 24-hour post-mortem in a processing facility once the carcass has cooled. This allows us to quantify the many different factors that affect pork quality. For example, a different feed ingredient, a new genetic line or another isolated change could influence pork quality. 

When buying pork in the grocery store, I recommend looking at color and marbling. Each of these factors can be a predictor of all the things a meat scientist looks at and, as humans, we have amazing tools and talents to make these assessments. 

The nose knows and the eyes have it
The “smell test” can provide sensory perception on freshness and our eyes can help make good pork selection decisions based on the following characteristics:

•    Fresh Pork Color: A simple rule to follow is that darker color is better. Pork that has darker color has more water bound with protein, which will result in the product being more juicy and tender. In pork, tenderness is more associated with color than marbling. 

•    Fresh Pork Marbling: Marbling is the small pieces of fat that are visible throughout the inside of muscle. The degree of marbling can have an impact on pork flavor, which is also true for beef as you reflect on select, choice, and prime at the meat case. The average percent of fat present in most pork loins is around 2%, which is satisfactory for a good eating experience. You have no doubt heard the term “fat is flavor.” I will let you in on a secret: that’s true. 

The National Pork Board has defined color and marbling standards specifically for fresh pork. The graphic below further explains these attributes.

pork quality chart

End-point cooking temperature the third and final attribute for determining a quality eating experience. The rule to keep in mind is simply to use a meat thermometer and cook loin cuts to 145 degrees Fahrenheit with a 3-minute rest. Degree of doneness was noted in the December issue as critical to a good eating experience. In other words, even if you select a great piece of quality pork for your next meal, you (and your guests) will miss a quality eating experience if the pork is overcooked.  

My mantra on pork quality is, and always will be, that the entire pork business model (regardless of your affiliation) relies on one basic principle: a consumer that purchases pork – whether cooked or fresh – should consume it and enjoy it enough to repeat the process. Period. 

David Newman grew up on a family farm in Myrtle, Mo. He became interested in meat science while pursuing an animal sciences degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Newman is an associate professor at Arkansas State University where his research focuses on meat quality. He and his wife, Kristin, farm and have a diversified livestock operation with a meat business focused on meat quality. They have two children, Cody and Ava. 

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