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IN FOCUS: Examining the need for pork quality grading

IN FOCUS: Examining the need for pork quality grading
Pork quality could be a major topic as the National Pork Board convenes a task force to chart the industry's strategic plan for 2015-2020.

LATE last month the National Pork Board announced that it would convene an industry task force to consider a wide range of consumer issues, including animal care, sustainable pork production and other challenges to define a future vision for the industry and the Pork Checkoff.

Beginning this month, the 16-member panel will embark on a year-long process to review research, market data and opinions of industry leaders, and then set a strategic vision for the industry through 2020. The primary goal of the task force is to assess the Pork Checkoff's role in an ever-changing world and set the priorities that can help pork producers better meet customer needs.

The Board’s current five-year strategic plan was unveiled in 2009 and will be complete next year. Through that process, the Pork Checkoff defined three critical issues: protecting a producer's freedom to operate, enhancing U.S. and international consumer demand for pork and making U.S. pork producers more competitive in the global marketplace.

One of the issues that may arise during the planning process is a perceived need for a pork quality grading system in the U.S.

The Pork Board’s vice president of science and technology Paul Sundberg told Feedstuffs earlier this year that research on pork quality would be a larger focus of Checkoff investment in 2014 and 2015.

“The quality conversation is in its infancy,” Sundberg explained. “Our consumer preference study in 2011 led to the cooking temperature change. Now we’re trying to gauge consumer attitudes and the perception of pork quality, and then determine how we can drive that through the pork supply chain.”

That temperature change referred to a 2011 update to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety guidelines, which now call for a minimum internal cooked temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit for pork muscle cuts, as opposed to the previous 160 degree standard that tended to leave consumers eating a porkchop that was too dry, or less tender than a beef steak cooked to an equivalent medium or medium rare doneness.

Sundberg described the early conversation on pork quality as an effort to “raise the tail end of the bell curve.” The Pork Board’s efforts to communicate proper cooking of pork continue, as well, but with a goal of helping consumers better understand how to best cook various cuts of pork.

Even so, there is no pork quality grading system in the U.S. akin to that utilized in the beef industry, differentiating on a quality basis the merits of one carcass from another. And because of that, there is no incentive, economically speaking, for producing a higher quality carcass.

A 2013 study conducted by Kansas State University economists Glynn Tonsor and Ted Schroeder concluded that the lack of a system has caused an “economically significant variability in pork quality present in retail meat counters,” and that the industry currently has a very limited understanding of consumer preferences related to pork. 

In addition, the study noted that the industry currently lacks the ability to accurately measure quality in “an acceptable way that is highly associated with end-user value and that could facilitate further exchange of quality and associated pricing information with in the industry’s supply chain.”

Listen in: Kansas State University economist Glynn Tonsor discusses the economic implications of the pork industry's lack of a quality grading system in this week’s edition of the Feedstuffs In Focus podcast.
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