Building A Better Pig
Pigs aren't porky anymore. Instead, they're as lanky as marathon runners. While the pig's makeover is partly a triumphant tale of producers meeting demands for leaner, more healthful meat, there's a cautionary message here, too. Today's pigs all too often don't taste good. With pigs, unlike New York socialites, it really is possible to be too thin.
I've discovered this the hard way, having despaired of pork roasts that are as dry as a Presto log. I knew pork wasn't always like this, because hogs and I have a history. My grandfather, Evan Ferrin, a professor of animal husbandry, was featured in Life magazine for developing improved feed. As a child, I spent many hours playing in hog barns in the Midwest, scratching the massive animals behind their ears while they nibbled the toes of my sneakers. Each fall, half a hog made its way into our family freezer, and all winter long we feasted on roasts, bacon, sausage, and chops. A bucket of lard was in the freezer, too, the magic ingredient in my mom's famously flaky pie crusts.
In the early 20th century, lard was a precious commodity. But starting in the 1950s, meat became more valuable than fat. Farmers started selecting leaner animals and experimenting with feed and housing to grow more muscle more quickly. That trend accelerated in the 1970s, when consumers began abandoning beef and eating more chicken to cut fat from their diets. Alarmed, in 1987, pork producers launched the "Other White Meat" campaign. It wasn't just hype. Supermarket pork is 31 percent lower in fat than it was 20 years ago. "All through the '80s and '90s, we continued to try to say we can get a leaner hog with more muscle," says Maynard Hogberg, head of animal science at Iowa State University. "But they lost the taste, they lost the juiciness, they lost the moisture content."
Today's "commodity" pig packs on almost a pound of muscle a day en route to its market weight of about 260 pounds. Hog operations are bigger than ever, with most housing 5,000 pigs in climate-controlled buildings. With 100 million hogs slaughtered each year, these efficiencies deliver cheaper meat for consumers and bigger profits for producers. They have also sparked growing concerns about animal welfare and pollution.
Along the way, breeders inadvertently engineered in some serious problems. Pigs became anxious and would drop dead at the slightest upset. Researchers have identified the gene for "porcine stress syndrome" and can test for it. Meatpackers address the dry meat problem by "pumping" pork with a phosphate and brine solution, a fix that also means consumers are paying for meat that is really 12 percent added water.
Steven Lonergan, a meat scientist at Iowa State, has identified three factors that make meat tender: intramuscular marbling; whether the muscle was used for locomotion (legs) or posture (tenderloin); and proteolysis, where enzymes that break down muscle continue to work after the animal's death. "More protein degradation, more tender product," Lonergan says. He'd like to figure out a way to control that process to make a very lean cut of meat meltingly tender.