Production technology of culinary pork in the EU

Pork production is one of the main branches of agriculture and the most important element of the meat market for the Member States of the EU. The European Union is the second largest producer and exporter of pork in the world (22.0 and 2.2 million tonnes, respectively). This high position results from the production of several countries, where this kind of meat dominates in domestic consumption and is the main agricultural product in the country (such as Germany, Spain, France, Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands). Despite high production costs, this high position of pork from EU countries was achieved thanks to a wide range of factors, but the most important of them is its high quality, which is a prerequisite for maintaining the market advantage both in local markets and in international trade. Clear proof is the acceptance for implementation of the slogan From Fork to Farm, emphasising the leading role of the acquirer in assessing the quality of the meat, and thus deciding which actions are necessary to be implemented throughout the entire production chain of high quality meat.

Over the last 40 years, significant changes in pork production have taken place in the EU. Based on the results of scientific studies and the practical experience of breeders, numerous changes were introduced, especially concerning the following issues:

  • genetics (utility crossbreeding of native breeds with meat breeds, devoid of the gene of low resistance to stress, allowing for 60% of lean meat in the carcass),
  • animal nutrition (with balanced feed containing basic components or protein, fat, carbohydrates and water, as well as essential vitamins and micronutrients), allowing for a significant improvement of the efficiency of fattening,
  • limiting and, in a number of cases, eliminating from feed certain substances, including antibiotics, growth promoters and meat and bone meal,
  • implementation of the principles of animal welfare in the breeding, transport and preparation of animals for slaughter,
  • strict compliance with the principles of heath safety of meat and meat products in the field of slaughtering, processing and commodity turnover.

As a result of intensification of production, the economic efficiency of pork production has improved significantly thanks to, among others, a significant reduction of the breeding time of fattening pigs (up to approx. 5 months) and reduction of feed costs, labour, as well as better use of space. However, this requires adapting to very demanding rules for breeding, commodity turnover for animals, correctness of individual slaughtering and cutting operations, as well as preparing meat for retail sale. Deviations and errors in their execution give rise to technological defects, impeding its use as a culinary meat or in processing.

In EU countries, pork is placed on the market as a culinary meat (over 70%) or as a raw material for the production of meat products. Culinary meat is cut from specified essential elements of the pig carcass, cooled, not subjected to other curing processes, and intended for thermal treatment (meal preparation) under household conditions. Essential elements for the production of culinary pork are mainly: loin, ham, neck, shoulder and sirloin in the form of whole muscles or divided into smaller culinary portions. Other essential elements of the pig carcass, which are used as a culinary meat in a relatively small range, include hocks and bacon.

In the EU, rules of high quality pork production, which cover all stages of producing and preparing meat for commodity turnover, have been determined.

In terms of genetics (which is responsible for the quality of pork by approx. 30%), it is recommended that piglets come from utility crossbreeding (of two or three breeds) of native maternal breeds (adapted to local environmental conditions) with boars of known origin, without the gene of low resistance to stress (RYR1T and RN-).

Animals should be fed with feed of quantity and a nutritional value adapted to their age and nutritional requirements. It is forbidden to supplement them with feed additives not listed in the Register of Feed Additives and materials listed in Annex III to Regulation (EU) No. 767/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council. In the final period of fattening, it is recommended to avoid the use of feed components that could adversely affect the quality of the meat (e.g. fish meal, corn meal, whey).

Each livestock farm must be subject to veterinary supervision, and animal attendants should have proven expertise in the field of pig farming. The conditions of preserving animal welfare in terms of technical conditions to be met by buildings and livestock facilities (including the materials used for their construction, size of pens, etc.) and their equipment, in terms of lighting, permissible noise level, ventilation, air temperature, are determined.

The purchase of animals should be conducted in a way that minimises stress and fatigue. A single loading (at the farm of the breeder) and single unloading (at the slaughterhouse) are only recommended.

Transport of animals can be conducted only by specialised means of transport, having suitable equipment for loading and unloading of animals, compartments allowing for separation of pig groups, access to water and which protect against severe weather conditions and extreme temperatures. All those involved in the transport of pigs must be properly trained. Vehicles must be equipped with a system of control and registration of transport time and air temperature in the cargo space and be able to warn the driver about exceeding the limit values. At least 4 hours before starting transport, a pre-slaughter fasting of pigs should begin. The total time of fasting, including residence time at the breeder’s farm, transport and pre-slaughter rest, should not exceed 18 hours. Once the transport is finished, animals should be unloaded from the means of transport as soon as possible.

Slaughter of animals directly after their transport is unacceptable. A pre-slaughter rest, allowing the animals to return to a steady physiological state, should last 4 hours, and in the case of animal transport over a distance of 100 km and in temperatures exceeding 30°C, 6 hours. Bringing pigs to the slaughtering area should be performed taking into account the specific behaviour of the animals (herd behaviour) and with respect to welfare (in a way which is the least tiring and protects against excessive excitement and stress). The use of electric cattle prods is limited and/or not practiced.

In EU countries, in the industrial slaughter of pigs, stunning with the use of an electric current or in a CO2 atmosphere is applied. The parameters of the electric current must be controlled and adjusted to the body weight of the animal. Equipment for pharmacological stunning (using CO2) must comply with relevant technical standards to ensure, among others, a suitable concentration of the gas. The stunning effect should last for a minimum of 30 seconds in the case of application of electric current and 60 second after stunning with CO2. Sticking and bleeding of animals is performed immediately after stunning so that the stunning effect is extended by loss of consciousness resulting from the loss of blood. The time between stunning and sticking should not exceed 10 second in the case of animals stunned with an electric current and 60 second in the case of CO2 use. The bleeding of pigs is performed in a lying or hanging position. The bleeding time should not exceed 4 minutes. Actions on external layers, including: scalding, depilation, singeing, are performed together with monitoring and documenting the parameters of temperature and duration. Evisceration should be initiated immediately after finishing the actions on the external layers. The time from the moment of stunning pigs to evisceration should not exceed 15 minutes. In the case of damage to the continuity of the gastrointestinal tract and contamination of body cavities with its content, the body of the animal is transferred to be disposed. The tools used for evisceration are disinfected by immersion in water at a temperature exceeding 82°C. Carcasses of pigs are divided into semi-carcasses to halve the vertebrae and expose the spinal canal. The spinal nerve must be removed from the spinal canal.

Carcasses (divided into two semi-carcasses) and internal organs are subjected to an examination of their health condition by an official veterinarian, in accordance with current requirements. The correctness of labelling carcasses fit for consumption unreservedly is controlled.

Carcass classification is conducted according to EUROP classification using devices approved for use in accordance with EU requirements. Carcasses belonging to the S, E, U fat classes are mainly intended for production of culinary meat.

It is recommended to control the intensity of the post-mortem rate of pH1 value reduction in the meat by its measurement in the longissimus (m. longissimus) 45 minutes after sticking the animal. This allows for elimination of the carcasses from having too rapid a course of post-mortem pH1 reduction (which may contribute to the formation of a defect of meat wateriness) from the production of culinary meat of proper quality. The limit value is pH1= 6.1.

Post-mortem cooling of carcasses is conducted by a single- or two-stage method until a temperature below 7°C is reached in the deepest layer (geometric centre of the ham). Cooling parameters (temperature, relative air humidity and velocity of its circulation, cooling time) must be selected in a way so that the rate of lowering the temperature of the carcass does not negatively affect post-mortem changes in the meat in the initial period after slaughter. Too fast cooling can cause defects in the form of cooling contraction, while too slow cooling results in defects of a so-called scalding of the meat.

Division of carcasses into essential elements and cutting of culinary meat is performed according to local systems or the requirements of an external customer. The air temperature in cutting facilities must be kept below 12°C. The temperature of the meat during division and cutting cannot exceed 7°C.

The control of culinary meat quality is performed mainly on two major essential elements, i.e. ham and loin, by:

  • measurement of pH1 and pH24 (in the loin 24 hours after slaughter, recommended value: 5.5 - 5.7),
  • visual evaluation of colour on the cross-section of the loin (usually by comparison with standards) in order to eliminate meat with defects (mainly PSE and DFD) and marbling (intramuscular fat content),
  • visual evaluation of colour brightness on the cross-section of the ham (usually by comparison with standards) in order to eliminate meat with defects (mainly PSE and DFD).

Packaging culinary meat is based on dividing into smaller parts (single- or multiple-portion). The process of dividing is documented in order to allow for reproducibility of obtaining the same portions in terms of form and weight. Individual parts of culinary meat (single- or multiple-portion) are packaged in an atmosphere of inert gases or using the so-called “vacuum” method. The temperature of the meat during packaging must be maintained at a level not exceeding 7°C. Each single pack of culinary meat must be labelled in accordance with EU requirements.

During post-production storage in meat processing plants, transport, warehouses of wholesale and retail stores, conditions for continuity of the cold chain must be preserved, and the temperature of the meat must not exceed 7°C.

Good commercial practice is to place in each retail store selling culinary meat posters presenting:

  • essential parts of the carcass and the culinary elements cut from them (accompanied by information about the recommended method of heat treatment),
  • standards of colour and marbling of pork chops and colour of a ham cross-section accompanied by information about the optimum range of these parameters.