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Responding to demand for marbled pork

KIRKTON ' After years of working to make pork leaner, the industry that produces it is responding to an increased demand for marbled pork, which has small streaks of fat within the muscle that are visible in meat cuts.Though attempts to achieve optimal levels of marbling have been imperfect, an organization representing the province's pork producers is working toward that end, and hopes to soon implement a grading system that identifies degrees of marbling in a manner similar to that of beef.That was, in part, the message delivered in a presentation from Anita Ivanauskas of Ontario Pork, which promotes marketing and government lobbying efforts on behalf of 2,800 pork producers in Ontario, at a meeting in Kirkton Jan. 27.The talk was part of an annual symposium called the Centralia Swine Research Update, which offered presentations from a number of experts in the swine industry.Ivanauskas said pork today is 44 per cent leaner than it was 28 years ago, due in part to a drive by producers to reduce fat levels that began in the 1970s. That effort led to some complaints that the resulting product is too dry to cook and tasteless. Consumers and processors reacted by utilizing moisture enhancement with water, plus the addition of sodium phosphate and salt, according to Ivanauskas.She said chefs and retailers have expressed interest in marbled pork, saying existing pork products don't make sense for all people at all times.Ontario Pork set out to identify what levels of marbling were desired by consumers, identify the feed and breed requirements to attain optimum levels, and identify retailers willing to carry the product.Ivanauskas said, on a scale of one to 10 ' with 10 having the highest level of marbling ' most pork available now is a one or a two. Market research revealed that, when test groups were shown a piece of raw pork and asked to rate its acceptability, 52 per cent indicated meat with a marbling level of one was "just right," she said. But when given cooked pork, 60 per cent said they would definitely buy product rated at six.Ivanauskas said this creates a huge marketing challenge: how to convince consumers to buy something they don't think they want. But she went on to claim that's essentially what happened in the beef industry.Ivanauskas noted a series of pigs were recently bred with the hope of offering a marbled product rated between three and five, but the texture of the resulting meat was tough and not optimal. The pigs were also heavier than usual: roughly 142 kilograms rather than the average 114 kg ' which Ivanauskas said was problematic for processing.Seeking a solution, in 2009, three Ontario farmers were commissioned to raise hogs according to breed and feed protocols from the Centre de development du porc du Quebec (CDPQ), requesting a target slaughter weight of 110-115 kg. The hogs were set to be slaughtered at the end of January with a sensory evaluation Feb. 1.Ivanauskas closed her talk by saying three-grade pork may be as good as producers can get on a consistent level today, and it may take time to get up to five or six-grade pork ' though the latter product might only appeal to specialized customers.She said marbled pork is seen as a premium product and securing customers for the product, then producers, will be among the next steps. A financial analysis of the project is also in the works, and it is hoped the voluntary grading system for marbled pork will soon be introduced.

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