Understanding and Improving Pork Quality

UK - Meat quality is currently very topical, and almost everyone I talk to has their own opinion on what we must do to improve it.
calendar icon 15 October 2006
clock icon 5 minute read

The major consensus is that genetics play the biggest part in influencing the final product, and that as a breeding company we should have the 'magic bullet' to solve the problem. We are all too often tempted to look for the quick fix, the easy answer, the 6 month plan to win over the new buyer. But hang on, this may well work in the short term, but where are we now?

Sales of fresh retail cuts of pork falling year on year. Price deflation from your customer who sees little distinction between UK and EU product. Customer dissatisfaction with the inconsistency of pork eating quality. No real brand identity in pork as a segment, let alone UK Pork. Pork has the lowest £/kg of the whole red meat category, and only around 25% of the value share.

We currently market around 15% of the UK Kill on 'premium' contracts aimed at supermarket top tiers. This means currently 85% of our pigs are sold on processor led contracts, which are fine, but when buyers and farmers spend half of their time wrangling over volume and price, where is the meat quality focus? When factories are built to cater for tonnage and not tenderness, hauliers pressed to meet schedules and not pre-slaughter stress targets, and farmers are paid for kilos and not quality, what hope do we have of improving our position?

Just look at the recent scramble towards 'Rare breeds'. How much of this interest has been in the overall eating quality of the product? I suspect that the bigger pull for the supermarkets has been a marketing story, a 'traditional' brand name with 'heritage', one that would give the retailer a 'halo effect' over their pork category. But surely this is all to waste if it fails to deliver premium meat quality and repeat purchases.

So where will we be in 5 years time? If we grow the Premium UK Pork category at the same rate, 80% of our kill will need to be EU cost competitive to stay on the supermarket shelf. Cost or quality, it's a simple formula. I believe this sharpens the argument for really working hard, in dedicated supply chains, and together as and industry in some aspects, to improve the eating quality of our 'standard pork' offer, and to give processors ability to grow supermarkets premium tiers.

So what influences pork quality? In broad terms, genotype will influence roughly a third, Systemic Environmental Factors another third, and Non-Systemic Factors, which in many cases are a big unknown, the final third. We must also remember that the interaction between the best genotype and different environments will not always be the same.

So what is the ideal pork quality? Reddish pink in colour, minimal drip loss or 'exudate', slightly firm in texture, etc. The reality is it depends on customer preference, so a targeted approach is necessary. What measures of technical and sensory meat quality are we measuring? Colour, colour stability, water holding capacity and pHU, marbling, tenderness, juiciness, aroma, flavour, suitability for further processing...the list goes on.

What can we measure? Over the last 12 months at PIC, our technical team have spent time in almost every plant throughout the UK, looking at the supply chains into factories, the factories and processes, yields and drip loss of product, and the quality of the end product being sent to the supermarket. Looking beyond the processor at consumer level to understand what they are looking for and what we can learn from it for our product development. We have placed a great emphasis on understanding how our product performs downstream, DNA markers to influence eating quality, and it is this joined up thinking that we as an industry must operate to satisfy our customer's requirements.

So what room do we have to carve out a premium once more for UK pork? As pork producers there has never been a better opportunity to position a 'premium' and 'differentiated' product at the retailers 'top tier' offer. Retailers want 'premiumisation', through adding value, they add margin, another simple formula.

Your retailer also has an 'EDLP' culture - Every Day Lower Price. They have managed to re-brand 'cheap' in the customer's mindset as 'value', and of course everyone likes to think they are getting 'value'. You only need to glance over at half year profits of a billion pounds to understand the success of value. UK standard pork currently offers 'value', but little more.

Joanne Denny Finch OBE, Chairman of the IGD recently stated that '"If somebody, somewhere in the industry doesn't make changes, your industry will die in 30 years time". We need to heed her advice. We need to make changes, understand our product, and sell it better from a point of knowing that our customer sees value in it.

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