Jayson Lusk doesn’t often buy pork chops.
“She won’t let me,” the Purdue University agricultural economist said about his wife, who finds most pork too dry and tasteless.
“But since I’ve been doing this study, I now will buy them occasionally, now that I know what we should be looking for.”
Lusk and a team of researchers have discovered that tasty and less-tasty pork can be distinguished from one another, but that most consumers have no idea that this difference exists or what to look for.
Teaching consumers the difference and giving them a way to easily make that choice could have significant implications for all hog farmers. People are willing to pay more for tastier pork and they’re willing to eat more pork overall.
Lusk and his colleagues are recommending the pork industry consider labels that separate pork in grocery stores into a few different categories based on colour and appearance, such as Prime, Choice and Select.
The gains in overall pork sales come only when all the pork on the shelves is labelled, rather than just giving a special label to the best quality.
“If you only label the reddest meat … then it does increase demand for that highest quality label … by a fairly large margin, but it reduces demand for the unlabelled product,” said Lusk.
“I think it sends a signal about the things that are unlabelled.”
Lusk thinks separating pork into different categories can be done by colour because it generally reveals the level of pH and fat in the meat, which is a reliable indicator of taste. The higher pH cuts tend to be considered tastier.
However, consumers don’t know this, and few of them even seem to realize there is a difference at all.
Combined with this ignorance is the multi-decade campaign by the pork industry to push the notion of “pork — the other white meat.” That promotional motto was designed to associate pork in the consumer’s mind with chicken, which was seen as healthier than beef because it wasn’t as fatty.
As part of that drive to be seen as low-fat and more chicken-like, pig breeders and geneticists worked hard to produce animals that produced lower fat and whiter pork.
They succeeded but ended up producing pork that many now feel is too dry and flavourless.
Lusk thinks separating pork into categories based on colour signifying flavour could draw some consumers back to eating pork.
At the same time, those who want to eat lean and white pork could still find it in its own category.
Lusk thinks the boost in value to pork — consumers told the researchers they would buy more pork and pay more for tastier pork — could encourage breeders and geneticists to develop pigs that produce better tasting pork.