Can Consistent Quality Drive Repeat Pork Sales? Nov 21, 2017 By: Rick Stein, Vice President of Fresh Foods, Food Marketing Institute You may have heard that the USDA is reviewing, and has opened for public comment, a plan to revise the voluntary pork standards in place today. For the fresh pork industry, this is a monumental shift and it may directly impact retail meat cases across the country. From my perspective, it’s a great opportunity to improve the tasting experience for consumers who purchase pork loin cuts. Imagine being able to sort fresh pork loin cuts the same way you currently handle beef – through a grading classification of prime, choice and select. USDA is proposing these grades for pork loins, based on a color score and percent of marbling. And while USDA will be grading the loin, the grade can apply to the entire carcass as long as the associated cuts are traceable through fabrication and labeling. The color of pork is a proxy for pH, affecting tenderness and water-holding capacity, and the marbling in the meat affects tenderness and flavor. The USDA states that the 30-plus-year-old standards “no longer accurately reflect value differences in today’s pork products.” In the past two decades, many researchers have defined the business case to create a consistent eating experience, acknowledging the role grading plays. Highlights of three of these studies include: Consumer taste and preference study - In brief, this study found consumers understand the indicators of quality (i.e., fat and marbling, color and appearance) and prefer darker color pork chops. Surveys of fresh pork in the retail meat case - A 2015 Objective Color Distribution study found that 80–to-90 percent of fresh pork in the retail meat case scored from 1 to 2 (on a six-point scale) for color. In terms of marbling, the 2015 Subjective Marbling Distribution study found that 60-to-70 percent of pork loin chops at retail scored in the 1 to 2 range for marbling (on a 10-point scale). Consumer willingness to pay - This study found consumers trust the USDA to be the judge of defining “pork quality.” Additionally, some consumers seek out paler, thinner cuts of meat, while others seek out redder, more highly marbled cuts. In either case, a motivated consumer will pay more if they can consistently get the quality they prefer. These proposed changes to the voluntary standards would enable consumers to identify and purchase a consistent quality of product. When provided options, some consumers are willing to trade up. We know consumers prefer a unified standard because it offers a consistent eating experience. A grading update at this time allows a once-in-a-generation opportunity to produce, buy, process, and deliver consistency to consumers, which will improve pork quality in the long term. Today, as we look individually at each of these studies and how they correlate to increasing value, one can conclude that the pork supply chain is leaving money on the table. According to a conservative analysis by economists at Steiner Consulting, if comparing pork grades to the current quality grading of the beef industry, the average pig would deliver an additional $2 to the supply chain, resulting in more than $200 million in annual profit for the industry. There is a tremendous amount of information and education that will need to be provided to consumers; however, similar to beef, the grading of pork loin will benefit consumers and retailers. The USDA proposal is accepting comments until December 22, 2017. I look forward to seeing the final version early next year.