The Lacombe Pig 2.0

by Mary Bailey

It was the first and so far, only, Canadian breed developed and used commercially for pork production. Now, few companies use those genetics. They use international breeds, because tastes have changed. We no longer want a super lean product. In fact, cuts like pork belly have become the flavour du jour and processors are scrambling to keep up with the demand.

Manuel Juárez is the livestock phenomics scientist heading up a three year research project involving the Lacombe pig, one that will help commercial producers gain a fighting chance in the brave new world of global agriculture.

He works out of the same Lacombe Research Centre and his work is not unlike what the scientists did over two generations ago. More high tech perhaps, but the aim remains the same, to create a high quality pig that will help Canadian producers compete now.

“This is a large project, three years in different phases,” says Manuel.

“This project started because most Canadian pork doesn’t compete on differentation (quality and features) only on price, as a commodity. But the price of raising hogs keeps going up, and producers weren’t getting more money for their product. Many pork producers quit.”

Commodity pricing means that cheaper pork can come from other countries. For the consumer it’s cheap and convenient. “Why should Canadians eat more Canadian pork if the quality and experience is the same? You must have another reason besides it’s Canadian. This is what we are looking for, to create a product that is different, healthier, tastier, better for you.”

The producers that thrive are those who understand they have to offer something other than price, and find niche markets for their superior products.

“There are several producers that market high quality, non-commodity pork in specific niche markets and make money,” says Manuel. “There are financial models for different products — we need to be able to go to the producers and say ‘this production system may lead to some extra costs, but you can also make more money for your product.’ We have to create alliances to market it, and we need something different to market. Think of it this way— several brands now offer antibiotic and hormone free meat; this didn’t exist few years ago. It costs more to produce, the consumer wants it, and is paying more for it.

“I come from Spain, where we are known for the Iberian black pig. We have commodity pork as well, but the black pig is different because of better taste and traditional attributes. In Spain, the differentiation is based on many things, some traditional psychological factors such as humane conditions, especially living outside eating acorns which has a positive impact on quality. The diet increases the oleic acid in the fat, making it closer to olive oil in composition, and more liquid. The taste is very different as well and highly regarded. In short, the fat has less saturated fat. We are mimicking that effect by feeding the pigs in the trial canola, also flax to increase the omega-3.

“We’re evaluating 648 pigs in three years. It’s funded by ALMA, with many other partners, and it’s being done here in Lacombe with interest from producers and processors across the country.

“We have started with Large White×Landrace females bred to Duroc, Lacombe and Iberian.

“Lacombe is a lean, fast growing breed; Iberian is a rustic breed known for high intra- muscular marbling, but slower growth rates. The Duroc is the industry standard for balance between performance and quality traits.

”These three breeds are not genetically linked and we control by gender as well. Three diets, one is control based on what industry is doing now; one is high oleic acid (canola).The third diet has flax which increases omega-3. And we are experimenting with slaughter weights, chilling methods, moisture enhancement and ageing times to see what is the difference in the end result. The interactions among all these factors have not been evaluated in such a controlled way before. We have set up analyses of growth rate, digestibility of the different diets, carcass and meat quality and analysis of the fatty acid composition.

“After slaughter, we do the dissection of the whole carcass, to find out the composition of the loins, hams and shoulders. One part of the carcass that we pay a lot of attention to is the belly. Nowadays, the belly is very important for the packers. We can never have two much bacon — if we could have pigs with two bellies we would be happy.

“We have a sensory panel that evaluates on taste and we have reached out to people like Brad Smoliak to help us with the taste and performance evaluations.

“We’re almost finished. We have to do some analyses and will have some preliminary results by this summer. We’ll be making a presentation at the Banff Pork Seminar 2015.

“So far we’re seeing differences in colour, fat content and flavour. We’re not seeing any performance issues from the different diets, the animals are not growing more slowly, which the producers will like.“

Brad Smoliak has been incorporating the meats into his menus at Kitchen by Brad. What does the chef think?

“Outstanding, really good flavour,” says Brad. “The meat is richer, meatier, more savoury with a more pronounced pork flavour but without porkiness. One of the biggest things is the colour of the Iberian cross; it almost looks like beef. Once cooked it’s not that noticeable, more like chicken thigh, but it’s not that pale pork. The shoulders were amazing, the fat just melted into the meat, more marbling creates a tremendous texture. It was a softer fat, melted really quickly in the mouth, creating a good mouth feel. Tasted like pork buddah, delicious.

“The scientists were great to work with and the product for lack of a better word was like old- fashioned style pork. The response from our guests was very positive.

“I’d pay extra for this pork. You have to taste it, some might be deterred by the fat they can see but that is what makes it taste so good.

“It’s like Irvings on a bigger scale, there should be more project like this on all types of food. Why can’t we get veal?”


The mild flavour and pleasing texture of pork has many culinary uses. The key is using the right cut for the dish. Pork tenderloin is lean, almost pure protein and lends itself to quick cooking. Pork shoulder on the other hand, with its higher fat levels and ample connective tissue, is best for low and slow cooking or braising.

Pork lover Mary Bailey is the editor of The Tomato.