Meat Quality

Quality can greatly affect the cost and value of a pork carcass indirectly, whether at the packing plant for export or in your local supermarket retail case. With respect to quality, the best evaluation is one by direct observation of the characteristics in the loin eye muscle (m. longissimus thoracis) at the 10th rib. The loin eye should be slightly firm, have a slight amount of marbling (intramuscular fat), and be reddish pink in color for optimum quality.[6] In addition, subcutaneous fat should be firm. There should be feathering (fat streaks) between the ribs when looking inside the thoracic cavity.[6]

Color may be the most important sensory attribute of food, and as such it, holds a preeminent position in overall pork quality. Color affects consumer judgment of sensory characteristics such as flavor, sweetness, and saltiness, as well as being an important predictor of nonsensory quality attributes such as moisture content and pigment color. Pale, soft, and exudative (PSE) meat is predominately found in pork, which has a reported incidence of 10%[7] and has recently been reported to be as high as 15.5%.[2] PSE pork is associated with an extremely rapid postmortem drop in muscle pH. PSE pork is characterized by a soft texture, a poor water-holding capacity, and pale color.[6] These conditions are caused by a rapid pH decline while the muscle temperature is still high. The looser muscle structure associated with a lower water-holding capacity results in a greater reflectance of incidental light and therefore a pale color. Water-holding capacity in pork is essential to the meat's economic benefits. The majority of the pork in the retail case today is injected with a solution, not only to enhance color, juiciness, flavor, and shelf stability, but also to increase weight of the product. If pork has low water-holding capacity, it is more difficult to get a high uptake in these processed products, thereby decreasing the value.

Moreover, PSE pork can also be related to genetics. Market hogs having high-stress conditions known as porcine stress syndrome (PSS) caused by the halothane gene produce carcasses with a high incidence of PSE pork.[6] In addition, rough handling increases PSE caused by the increase in lactic acid buildup immediately before slaughter.[8]

Solutions to solve pork quality problems continue to be a high priority in the industry. One technology that is being used is freeze chilling. Freeze chilling cools the carcass at a faster rate, slows muscle pH decline, lessens undesirable visual traits during retail display, lowers the incidence of PSE, and increases the amount of acceptable product for export. Pork carcasses are not as susceptible to thaw rigor as beef because of the increased fat on pork carcasses and their shortened time to rigor mortis. The lack of cold shortening in pork is due to the low content of red-fiber muscle.

Quality can greatly affect the end product of processed meats. As bacon production continues to increase, it is important to evaluate the trends in that sector of the industry. Bacon production is on the rise and continues to consume more of the retail case. Thicker bellies have a clear advantage when it comes to belly processing.[1] Despite these findings, it is clear that consumers visually prefer bacon produced from thinner bellies because of the appearance of less fat.[1] However, sensory evaluation found that consumers preferred bacon produced from thicker bellies versus bacon produced from thin bellies.[1] The industry must bridge the gap between production and consumption as pork bellies continue to get leaner and thinner.

Another important factor in pork quality is taint, which results from excessive concentrations of 5-alpha-androst-16-en-3-one (androstenone) and indoles, notably 3-mehylindole (skatole). Androstenone is a testicular steroid exhibiting a urine-like odor, and skatole is described as having a fecal-like odor.[9] Androstenone and skatole are often reported to be minimal in terms of the numbers of intact male pigs that have these traits. Most studies find that androstenone and skatole are major factors in boar taint. Boar taint is an unpleasant odor/flavor that can be perceived when cooking/eating the meat from some intact male pigs. Rius and Garcia-Regueiro[10] found that skatole and indole are accumulated mainly in adipose tissue, and the concentration of these compounds in the m. longissimus dorsi samples were lower than in the adipose tissue. The majority of male pigs in the United States are castrated, and therefore boar taint is not a major problem for the United States pork industry. However, the ability to identify these components of a carcass in those countries that slaughter intact males is of some concern.

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