USDA proposes pork grading focus on flavour, texture

Proposed grading would emphasize marbling and flavour instead of leanness, similar to the way beef is labelled and promoted.  |  File photo

If adopted, the grading system would once again play up pork as a red meat and drop the white meat comparison

Pork is getting closer to becoming “the other steak” and backing away from being “the other white meat,” says a taste-focused pig genetics company.

And it believes that’s the best news the pork market has had in years.

“I think it’ll create an evolution. The premium will be for hard marbling, darker meat, closer to steak,” Genesus Genetics president Jim Long said about proposed new U.S. pork grading.

“We were in a race to make things leaner and leaner and leaner. What we did is we destroyed the taste.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Oct. 23 published the first proposed rewrite of pork grading since 1985 and it is accepting public comments until Dec. 22

The new grading would allow companies to highlight the colour, marbling and texture of their pork, which are all connected to flavour and eating pleasure. That would reduce the emphasis on leanness and the inherent bias against fat within the meat.

Beef has long been able to differentiate between high flavour quality and average quality product through its grading and labelling system, but pork has not encouraged that to develop.

Instead, the pork industry’s general push for most of the time since the 1980s has been to reduce fat levels and to compete with chicken, which has seen steady gains in meat market share in recent years.

Chicken received praise and preference for years from many nutritionists and public health authorities for its apparently healthier qualities compared to “red meat,” and pork promoters worked hard to make pork seem chicken-like rather than beef-like.

At one point the U.S. National Pork Board agreed to pay millions of dollars to buy the phrase “the other white meat” from the National Pork Producers Council, since that similar-to-chicken message seemed to be so valuable.

However, pork’s position compared to chicken continued to erode, even as anti-fat mania developed, and the industry saw an unanticipated surge in popularity for the fattest cuts of pork: bellies, ribs and shoulders.

That didn’t seem to support the thesis that the consumer wanted ever-leaner meat and to avoid fatty cuts. But the train had left the station and genetics companies, producers, packers and food processors focused on leanness and other-white-meatness for far too long, Long said.

Now that the NPPC and NPB have reversed course and embraced grading that allows for flavour attribute differentiation, pork is close to getting back to branding itself as a premium meat. However, Long expects some elements of the pork industry to fight the change.

“There will be vested interests opposed to this because they’re so out of position,” said Long, who is happy about the proposed changes because his company has long incorporated flavour-focused attributes in its hog genetics.

Companies that have based their products and processes on extremely lean meat won’t be happy to see their commitment less valued in the new system.

However, Long said pork needs to buy back some of its lost market power from beef and chicken, and consumers are already showing what they want from the high prices they will pay for bacon, ribs and shoulders.

“It’s right in front of us, the reality of the marketplace,” said Long.

“That’s what processors, exporters and food service want.”

Canada’s pork grading system has also encouraged lean meat and there has been little talk of changing it, but Long noted that Canadian pork tends to follow U.S. trends.

Already some processors, such as Maple Leaf’s Lethbridge plant, have been developing taste-oriented product, and the U.S. developments will just “accelerate” that sort of development, Long said.

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