Packer Viewpoint on Muscle Quality

Jeffrey D. Arner
Supervisor, Livestock Services
Hatfield Quality Meats, Inc., Hatfield, Pennsylvania

Hatfield Quality Meats is a family owned business located near Philadelphia that manufactures both fresh and processed meats for distribution on the East Coast, A full-line slaughterer/processor, Hatfield is currently celebrating its 1 00th anniversary.

Meat quality is a difficult concept to define. What exactly is meat quality? Is it leanness? Uniformity? Ability to process? Consumer preference? The focus can be on arty one of these definitions: the only clear answer is that meat quality means different things to different people. Consumers seem to visually prefer one type of product yet want the taste and texture of a completely different type. The packer needs to make available the best combination of visual appearance and taste appeal to encourage consumers to make repeat purchases.

Quality is measured in different ways depending on its definition. Today at Hatfield we use the Fat-o-meat'er to measure back fat and muscle depth. These two measurements are used to predict the percent lean cuts (ham, loin, shoulder) in the carcass. The Fat-o-meat'er has allowed us to make objective measurements of lean content at line speed and to provide tangible measurements to our producers. By implementing a carcass-merit payment program eight years ago, we provided our hog producers with an incentive to supply us with lean carcasses. Today we are in the process of installing the Autofom at Hatfield. The autofom is a new carcass evaluation device developed by SFK that utilizes an array of ultrasound transducers to record images of the entire carcass. With extensive analysis, thousands of ultrasonic images are condensed to a number of critical predictors. These predictors can be used to accurately predict the content of the carcass and, more specifically, the individual primal cuts within the carcass. We will initially focus on the Autofom as a grading device to allow us to more accurately base payment to producers. Internally, we'll be better able to direct and segregate carcasses into appropriate product lines. At some point in the future, the Autofom may be able to help evaluate meat quality with an early indication of PSE.

The major focus involving meat quality today seems to center around PSE. The off-color and poor water holding capacity of this type of meat continues to cause problems for the industry. Unfortunately, we haven't found a simple, accurate, on-line method to evaluate carcasses for PSE, We continue to rely on subjective evaluation on the boning lines With no method to trace the product to its source. Unacceptable meat is directed into alliterative products or, in extreme cases, into inedible rendering. There lies another problem even if we can find and measure PSE. We still must do something with the product. To help minimize PSE altogether, Hatfield has focused on prevention of PSE through proper livestock handling, By using proper techniques prior to slaughter, we feel that we can impact the quality of our final products. Someday we hope to have a system in place to maintain cut identity from the cut floor back to the individual carcass and ultimately to the producer. If quality problems are reported back to producers in the form of payment adjustments, we may see a more pronounced shift toward reducing PPSE and improving meat quality.

Uniformity of products is another key issue for packers. Perhaps uniformity of carcasses could even be considered more important than the amount of lean.

Consumers demand consistent, uniform products. The job of sorting through daily production to find the desired cuts is difficult and could be made easier if carcasses within the same lot were more uniform. Unfortunately, there remains a tremendous variation among carcasses, even within the same lot and genetic type.

Offering premiums and discounts to producers for the quality of the lean they are supplying may shift the focus to meat quality traits. When carcass merit payment programs became prevalent there was a significant focus placed on producing leaner animals for the packer. Producers could actually see the impact of improving the lean content of their hogs by looking at their payment. Without an economic incentive, the concern and focus on meat quality is probably not a priority of producers at this time. Progressive producers will keep the meat quality issue at the forefront of their genetic programs in order to be prepared for the day when packers implement payment programs that reflect meat quality. In the future, the relationship between packers, producers and retailers will need to become closer so that the right type of product is made available to consumers.

Meat quality traits have become more important as selection parameters among retailers. Buyers are beginning to request and demand products with specific meat quality traits. Requirements as to how animals are raised, fed and cared for are also specified. To meet the specifications of particular customers, Hatfield has developed a program called "Pennsylvania Country Wagon Family Farms. " The Country Wagon Family Farms line will utilize hogs raised within certain parameters that provide cuts with specific quality traits. We are working directly with producers and genetics suppliers to deliver a highly qualified product to a specific customer. as the market becomes saturated with "commodity-type" products, the availability of unique niche markets could become an important opportunity for packers to expand their market share.

In summary, meat quality traits will become more important in the future to both packers and retailers. Packers will need to implement payment programs that offer premiums and discounts for not just lean content, but also the quality of the lean. Producers will have a financial incentive to improve the quality traits of their hogs, and the result should be a general improvement in meat quality. As an industry, we must keep in mind that quality means different things to different people and that ultimately we need to produce the type of products that best meet the needs of our customers.