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A Cut Above: Enhancing Pork Classification Through Quality

A "Made in Canada" Solution

A Cut Above: Enhancing Pork Classification Through Quality

Focusing on delivering quality products makes for happier, repeat customers.

When you’re already positioned as a leader in pork production and export, there’s only one thing left to do: strengthen that position.

For agricultural commodities, classification and grading systems are the cornerstone of branding and reputation. These systems play a key role in marketing for end users by measuring and communicating the specifications that a buyer can expect.  

One example is the ‘Prime’ and ‘AAA’ grades used in the Canadian beef industry, which are recognized as a mark of exceptional quality. For pork, Canada’s grading system has primarily been focused on factors like carcass lean meat yield and weight, leaving a gap when it comes to indicating quality.

By looking at the tools used to measure pork quality, research is now carving a path towards higher value and stronger competitiveness through the grading of quality.

Using Quality to Boost Competitiveness

It may sound obvious, but if you have high-quality pork, using quality as a means of grading it for buyers might be helpful in growing sales and earning top dollar for packers and producers. With that in mind, some industry stakeholders have been championing a primal cut grading system to arm customers with in-depth knowledge of expected quality for Canadian pork products.

There is now growing recognition across the value chain about the importance of consistency and quality assurance in meeting the demands of various markets around the globe. As a result, two researchers, Dr. Manuel Juarez with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Dr. Laurence Maignel with the Canadian Centre for Swine Improvement, have been tapped to investigate grading techniques.

As researchers began investigating quality grading techniques used by packers, they identified significant opportunities for improvement. While buyers are willing to pay for quality traits, enhancing packer revenue in the process, those traits are often still being measured with a subjective, rather than objective, approach. Unfortunately, these subjective methods lack the consistency and accuracy that premium buyers request from their suppliers.

Research to the Rescue

Clearly, more objective grading methods are needed. In response, scientists have sought to assess and improve current technologies for gauging quality and identify areas of the carcass that could be evaluated for loin color, marbling scores and firmness. Although some such tools existed, they tended to be bulky, pricey and time-consuming, so were rarely used.

However, the study unearthed less expensive options for classification that worked as well or better than the costly ones. These tools ranged from hand-held near-infrared spectroscopy devices to new colour standards and belly sorters based on firmness.


Up For Adoption

Before long, packers began adopting these technologies and working with the research team to incorporate them at their plants. Because flexibility was key to widespread acceptance by industry, researchers ensured that the chosen tools were adaptable for packers depending on their clients and facilities. The systems work equally well in a small plant processing 100 pigs per day and one with a volume of 2,000.

For packers, it means they can now classify cuts based on quality with a high degree of accuracy, while using fewer workers to do the job, boosting sales and improving pork prices for the sector as a whole. This should enhance client satisfaction and also benefit producers, as packers could favour and compensate producers delivering exceptional pigs on a consistent basis.

Collaborating Towards Quality

For their part, Drs. Juarez and Maignel are excited about what lies ahead, including a robotic arm that could work for plants wanting full automation, and a spinoff project looking at the use of a voice-controlled headset to evaluate pork loins.

In the meantime, they are pleased with the project results and the ongoing support from industry partners. Considering that these scientists are working to give the Canadian pork sector a competitive edge on the world stage, they feel confident that packers, producers and consumers will share their excitement.



Project Title:  Classifying Canadian pork based on quality attributes.

Lead(s)/Co-Lead(s): Manuel Juárez (AAFC Lacombe)

Budget: $1.23 Million

Priority Areas: Quality

Research Methods

The research team realized that a national pork grading system in Canada wouldn’t find easy acceptance from packers, as they are in competition with one another.

In response, the team sat down for monthly meetings with major processors to discuss the project in general. They then met individually with each packer to test different tools in different plants for a range of purposes. 

For example, they adapted an instrument for one company to measure pork belly fat quality. This was important, as a belly with soft fat cannot be used, for example, to produce bacon.

For another packer, researchers found a means of better measuring pork color, the main attribute influencing buyers’ decisions at  the retail level.

Reacting to client needs, the team also developed a marbling meter that quickly calculates the marbling score for a pork chop.

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