Not too many years ago, the pork industry began a campaign that encouraged the production of lean hogs. Packers were paying premium prices for hogs that produced the leanest meat and producers were selecting for genetics that would produce those lean hogs.

Now most producers are on that lean-hog bandwagon. But Bob Lyon, ag specialist with the Iowa Pork Industry Center (IPIC), says there has been a downside.

"As we have selected for leanness, we have produced a lighter colored, softer meat. The water holding capacity isn't as good. As the meat is cooked, it gets tougher," he says. "So we have leaned up today's hogs, but we have hurt the eating quality of the meat in the process."

Lyon says the IPIC is beginning to emphasize the meat quality issue because pork producers need to understand the growing importance of meat and muscle quality attributes. "In time--months rather than years--packers will be buying hogs based on meat quality. This is especially important for the export market, but it soon will become important domestically as well," Lyon says.

The demand is for darker pork with a higher pH level, Lyon says. "Packers already are testing pH levels, which have a direct correlation to taste, tenderness and juiciness. They are probably testing one out of three carcasses now. But once they have got the technology developed so they can test at line speed, it is a given they will begin to pay producers more for higher pH levels," he says.

Lyon says pork producers need to know about this growing demand for a different type of pork, how to measure it and how to produce it. "The hog's diet has very little impact on meat quality. There are several factors, including both live animal and carcass handling. But the best way to improve meat quality is by improving genetics," he says. "We can identify sows and boars that will produce offspring with superior meat quality."

This issue is the focus of two upcoming seminars, sponsored by IPIC, ISU Extension and the Iowa Pork Producers Association. The first seminar will be March 21 at the Howard Johnson Airport Express Inn in Cedar Rapids. The second seminar will be March 22 at the Scheman Building at the Iowa State Center in Ames. A $25 fee includes lunch, refreshments and a copy of the proceedings.

IPIC also offers meat quality assessments to individual pork producers or groups of producers. There is a fee for the service, but Lyon believes it is worth the cost. "We can give producers a benchmark of where they are at in terms of meat quality, and then work with them on a plan to improve that quality," he says. For information on these assessments or the upcoming seminars, call IPIC's PORKLine at 1-800-808-7675.

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