Science ‘Meats’ Art in Pork Quality, By Elizabeth Hines Swine Extension Specialist Penn State University

My husband cooks a fantastic pork chop. He has the artistic passion and patience for cooking that pairs very nicely with his scientific knowledge of pigs and meat production; allowing him to identify a great chop and cook it to perfection. I’m going to brag about him because, while I have patience for working with pigs, I lack the artistic perspective to cook a bragging-rights worthy meal.

Many people love to cook, and they base their passion for cooking on the experience of food, which is quite an artistic perspective of food. Yet, it is very much an art that relies on excellent science to create that final product. The science behind an excellent pork chop starts with muscle; muscle that is grown by pigs via farmer inputs. The physiological state of muscle as it is moved to harvest plays a key role in the quality of pork as that muscle converts to meat.

Meat and muscle are not the same, at least, not directly. Muscle is a collection of bound proteins that interact to facilitate movement through contraction and relaxation. Many interconnected proteins make up a single contractile unit in muscle; and many of those contractile units make up a muscle fiber. Many muscle fibers are needed to make a muscle bundle, and finally, many muscle bundles make up a whole muscle. You can think of this in terms of rope. The strength of a single string in a piece of rope is not very strong, however, many strings intertwined together creates a strong rope for pulling anything. In muscle, many intertwined protein structures create a strong muscle. Keeping with our rope analogy, while strings are assembled by a person to a desired strength, farmers supply or facilitate the right components for the pig to assemble muscles. Pigs with genetics that support the generation of muscle, feed that contains the right amount of protein and the right amino acids to support muscle growth, and environments that allow feed and genetics to prioritize muscle growth are all needed to establish the basis for good pork. While a good muscle acts in similar ways to a good rope, the muscle must change properties in order to make quality meat.

Muscle becomes meat during the harvest process through the loss of homeostatic processes that keep muscle alive and functional. When homeostasis cannot be maintained, then proteins begin to break down. Before and during the process of transitioning muscle to meat, handling of the animal and the muscle has a substantial impact on the pattern and biochemical process of protein breakdown, thus impacting the process that facilitates high quality pork. This process can be impacted by stressful loading situations, improper feed or water withdrawal, poor stunning techniques, or improper temperature management of the meat post-harvest. Because of the impact these many factors can have on the transition of muscle into meat, creating a team with a sound understanding of entire harvest process benefits the production of pork that meets expectations of culinary artists.

This fall, Penn State Extension is partnering with the American Meat Science Association to host the nationally recognized Pork 101 program. This 3-day intensive, hands-on workshop will provide education on pork production for those who are part of or interested in the muscle to meat conversion process. Hearing from experts in the pork industry and meat science programs from across the nation, this workshop will bring to light the processes that take pig to plate. Who might benefit from this course? Anyone who has a hand in that journey and wants to better understand how their role in the process influences pork quality.

Learn more about this event! Seats are limited, so sign up soon!