SEWARD, Ill. — Jeff Sindelar used his mother’s electric skillet to illustrate how far the U.S. pork industry has come in a short amount of time.

“When I grew up eating pork — there were six kids in my family — it was a batch process. She would cook a batch of pork chops, put it off to the side on a plate, cook a second batch, put it off to the side on a plate, take the first batch and cook it again and do that. So I ate pork that was half of its starting size,” he said.

When his mother was double-cooking the pork chops for Sindelar and his siblings, she — and millions of other pork-cooking mothers — were doing it with the primary goal of food safety in mind.

“You cook the heck out of it, and the reason for that was trichina, Trichina spiralis,” he said.

Sindelar, who grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Nebraska, was speaking to an audience at the Meat Trends interactive pork processing and cooking demonstration at Eickman’s Processing in Seward. He is a University of Wisconsin Extension meat specialist and associate professor of meat science.

Sindelar started out the event, which was sponsored by University of Illinois Extension, Jo Daviess-Stephenson-Winnebago, by giving a brief overview on modern pork production in the U.S.

That industry has developed to produce a product that emphasizes meat quality and food safety, he said.

“Meat quality is defined as the sum of various attributes that make meat desirable for food. There are a lot of things that go into meat quality in pork, genetics, what we feed the animals, how we handle the animals, how we transport them, what we do before slaughter, during slaughter, after slaughter,” he said.

Sindelar noted that proper and humane handling prior to slaughter has become a major component in meat quality.

“Hogs are a unique beast because they can get really excited really fast. When they are excited, things go crazy inside them and they get very stressed and that stress relates to meat quality issues,” he said.

He was joined by Tom Eickman, owner of Eickman’s Processing, a third-generation meat processor.

“We start off with video monitoring for all the employees, so we have a video record of them unloading animals, how they’re moving animals. We don’t want them running down the aisle. We want them just calmly walking along. We tend to move them in groups, so they stay together — no pushing, no rushing. If they don’t want to walk, you wait for them,” Eickman said.

“Humane handling and keeping stress levels down before slaughter is good for everybody,” Sindelar added.

He said that various breeds and genetics also contribute to meat quality.

“Different breeds of hogs have different positive attributes. Certain breeds have better genes, resulting in meat quality. The Hampshire does not have the meat quality that the Berkshire does. The Berkshire is an awesome, awesome breed of hog, but what’s the downside of Berkshires? Berkshires usually have this much back fat to go along with a whole bunch of marbling. Hampshires usually don’t have that much back fat on average,” said Sindelar, who added that producers may choose breeds depending on what market they are selling hogs to, with the high-end restaurant trade maybe demanding the fattier, more marbled Berkshire pork, while larger processors who dock for excessively fat hogs preferring Hampshires or similar lean breeds.

“Lean, fast-growing hogs will help make us some money in the pork industry. But that doesn’t mean the Berkshire breed is not useful. You just have to understand what the different breeds bring to the table,” he said.

Sindelar also noted that diet plays a role in meat quality. One audience member asked about feeding bakery leftovers and byproducts, and the specialist said that producers, even of pastured pork, have to be careful about what their hogs are eating.

“There can be some challenges because hogs are unique in what they eat will sometimes end up in their fat,” he said.

Sindelar noted that animal welfare has become a preeminent issue for pork producers in all sectors and for the processing sector of the pork industry.

“We do a very good job of this, in general. Animal welfare is a pretty easy thing to achieve because it’s beneficial for all parties. If you are an owner of livestock, you already invest in that animal and you care for those animals,” he said.

“When happy hogs come to Tom’s door, happy hogs will result in better-quality meats and less of some other issues that can occur. Everybody being involved in animal welfare is really positive because everybody benefits from it.”

Sindelar said that there are some issues common to pork that can be eased or reduced by reducing the amount of stress to the animal before slaughter.

Showing the audience photos of package pork with a pink liquid at the bottom, he explained why the meat had that liquid in the package.

“It’s called pale, soft and exudative pork, PSE. When we see this pooling, what is that? Blood? Nope. It’s water,” Sindelar said.

He said the liquid is largely protein, caused by stressed animals prior to slaughter.

“What we like to see is a normal pH decline after slaughter, the pH slowly goes down. If we have stressed animals, a lot of lactic acid is generated. It can’t be taken away by the blood because it’s not there, and the pH goes down very, very quickly. When that happens, we have a lot of acid on protein, and that causes problems. PSE is caused by too much pH caused by stress and maybe some other things that basically cause the proteins to no longer hold on to the water,” he said.

“This is my favorite consumer tip — this pH drop and how fast it happens affects how much the protein is going to hold on to water. If it happens too fast, you can get a lot of water, protein-colored water. The color of pork is a good indicator of what the quality of that meat is going to be. When I go in a grocery store, I buy the darkest-colored pork I can because I know this pork will have a very high pH. There will be very little water that has come out, and there will be little water that comes out during the cooking. I stay away from light-colored pork because I know a lot of water has already come out and during the cooking a lot more water is going to come out,” he added.

As for cooking that pork, Sindelar applauded recent advancements in recommended temperatures for cooking pork safely yet retaining moisture and flavor.

“A couple years ago, those standards and recommendations changed to 145 degrees. This is one of the biggest victories in recent times, I think, for making good high-quality pork and resulting in a good eating experience for consumers. You can get anyone to buy a food once. If they have a bad eating experience, they likely won’t buy it again or for some time,” he said.

Sindelar said that the actions of consumers after they purchase their pork have a big impact not just on quality and taste, but on food safety.

“Even a little bit of difference in temperature can make a huge difference in food safety, as well as food quality. Cross-contamination is also a problem. We’re our biggest enemies. We’re the biggest danger to ourselves,” he said.

Sindelar said that as part of a healthy and balanced diet, pork plays an important part.

“I always tell people it’s all in perspective. If you eat any food in moderation, as part of a normal, healthy, balanced diet, all foods are perfectly acceptable. If you put it all in perspective and keep balance in your diet, it’s perfectly fine,” he said.