DES MOINES, Iowa – Coming soon to a dinner table near you: the pork chop of the future, with a retro twist.
Just as the "other white meat" is finally shaking off its fatty, unhealthy image of a generation ago, hog producers are now being encouraged to increase the fat to improve the flavor.
Welcome to the world of "lean marbled pork" -- a conundrum that was a popular topic among the hundreds of pork farmers and enthusiasts at the annual World Pork Expo (search) here this month.
"Some people think we've gone too far in taking all the fat out," said David Meisinger, assistant vice president of educational services at the National Pork Board (search).
"When consumers buy pork, they don't want to see any fat in there. But when they eat it, they like the flavor and juiciness that a little bit of fat gives it."
Meisinger emphasized that this new pork will not be the high-fat, high-cholesterol variety that the industry abandoned two decades ago when it began likening itself to chicken with its well-known "Pork: The Other White Meat" ad campaign.
The goal is to keep pork healthy and lean while improving taste and texture by adding more marbling, Meisinger said, referring to the intramuscular fat that makes meat more juicy and tasty.
With more marbling, cuts may go from 99 percent lean to 97 or 98 percent lean, he said.
Fattier, marbled cuts have grown from a niche market in recent years, and the roughly $40 billion U.S. pork industry hopes to tap into that demand.
The National Pork Board raised the bar for hog producers this month when it introduced what it considers the ideal model of a slaughter hog, dubbed Symbol III.
The first two incarnations of the "Symbol" hog in 1981 and 1995 were lofty goals in their day, but through genetics and breeding they eventually became industry norms. The Symbol III hog (search), according to the NPB, is superior to its predecessors because it will grow faster, be more resistant to disease, convert feed to meat more efficiently, and produce the best-quality, safest pork to date.
Hog producers say this latest goal may take about a year to realize and a few more to perfect, but advances in breeding and genetics make it easier than in the past.
"First you have to get the producers to accept the fact that there needs to be a change. Then realistically, just biologically, it takes about a year to implement it," said John Kellogg, a hog producer from Yorkville, Illinois, who raises about 32,000 hogs a year.
Analysts say the change will not increase producer costs, but will take time.
"I think it's going to cause producers to have to stretch to become better, but that's what they have to do to meet the market place and what consumer demand is going to be," said Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics.
Government statistics show little fluctuation in U.S. pork consumption in recent years, but the pork industry wants to pre-empt any loss of demand from dissatisfied consumers.
The industry reversed a long-term slide in consumption in the mid-1980s by cutting the fat for a more health-conscious marketplace and launching its "Pork: The Other White Meat" campaign.
A few consumers have voiced unhappiness with today's less fatty, drier pork, but most don't bother complaining.
"If you lose business like this, you lose it silently. They just don't come back and you don't know why," said Meyer.
Pork processors for years have supplemented the relative lack of moisture in leaner pork by pumping water or other preservatives into some cuts in a process called "enhancing."
But growing demand for "natural" or organic pork has sent a message that more consumers want the nonenhanced product now available mainly in high-end grocery stores or the Internet.
Producers hope that lean marbled pork will satisfy the palate, without sacrificing the hard-earned healthy image.
Chefs sometimes wrap particularly lean pork cuts in bacon to add moisture and flavor. But bacon-wrapped anything will send most dieters straight for the nearest chicken dish.
"Fat is flavor in any kind of meat that you use. The more fat lines, the more marbling inside a piece of meat, it definitely benefits the end result," said Joe Burdi, executive chef at Loyola University food services in Chicago.