Could quality be UK pork’s selling point?

Taste, tenderness and appearance are vital to the sale of pig meat. But, with more than 50% of meat imported in to the UK, the question is, how meat quality differs between countries.

Although the differences have yet to be investigated objectively, Bristol University’s meat quality expert, Jeff Wood believes a clear differentiation between UK and EU pig meat could be a strong selling point.

Speaking at the Society of Feed Technologists and Home Grown Cereal Authority’s conference on pigs, Prof Wood said although it was unlikely the generality of UK pig meat is “better” than EU competition in terms of meat quality, it could be made so.

“With partners in the meat chain working together to develop specific products meat quality could be improved.”

Prof Wood presented some “best guess” conclusions examining the obvious differences between UK and EU production systems to determine whether any of these would lead to differences in nutritional value and meat quality.

“Price, nutritional/health status and taste are all important for consumers. Factors that could affect these are breed difference, different production systems, carcass weight, sex status, fat thickness, animal handling and processing,” he said.

For example, although breeds are becoming similar in the UK and EU, the use of more Pietrain, Hampshire and Duroc in the EU could have a possible effect on meat quality. More intensive production systems in the EU compared to more outdoor and straw based systems in the UK could equally have an effect.

“One of the main distinctions between the UK and EU is the number of boars castrated. Castration is common in the EU which isn’t the case in the UK, so not only is there a risk of boar taint from uncastrated pigs, but for castrates there is also an increase in fat thickness,” he said.

However, differences in production could influence the important aspects of meat quality, tenderness, juiciness and flavour, Prof Wood went on to explain.

“When it comes to tenderness, EU pig meat may be slightly better because of the growth rate effect, fat thickness and marbling fat from using the Duroc breed and by castrating. EU pig meat may also be better on flavour due to the risk of boar taint from non castrated pigs in the UK,” he said.

But, where UK pig meat could really benefit is with nutritional benefits, said Prof Wood. For example in a 100g steak, UK steaks contain 10g fat and 2.1g of saturated fatty acids, compared to 12g of fat and 4.1g of SFA in an EU steak

“These nutritional differences mean it might be possible to create a national brand with high meat quality and nutritional values based on these measurements.”

Changes to diets could also influence meat quality and nutritional value, explained Prof Wood.

BPEX funded research looking at chicory and its impact in reducing skatole and androsterone (factors of boar taint) found pigs fed a diet containing chicory at 9% saw only 3% of pigs above the skatole threshold level compared to 32% of control pigs.

Market factors

Farmers have a window of opportunity now to invest and address fundamental weaknesses in key performance indicators as well as becoming more sustainably competitive, according to Mick Sloyan, BPEX director.

He said the world economic crisis had generally worked in favour of the British pig industry. “The recession has affected consumer and retailer behaviour because the price of food has risen. And as a result purchase patterns have changed, with consumers eating less beef and lamb and more chicken and pork.”

The amount of sausage and bacon being eaten has increased by 3.6% compared to the previous six year average and fresh and frozen meat pork has risen by 6.1%.

“This increase in demand combined with the sterling remaining weak continues to boost competitiveness, compared to EU producers who are suffering from volatility and relatively low prices.”

“In the longer term we are going to head back to where we were previously in terms of exchanges rates, so if we can use now to plug gaps, this can help improve productivity and may be lower costs of production in the future.”

Several other EU countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain have lower costs of production than the UK. So when exchange rates reverse if costs of production can be lowered the UK can become more competitive.