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Is this the aporkalypse? Researcher discovers blue-ribbon hogs can carry ‘leather boot’ gene

porkBy Lauren Bennett | Feb. 2, 2017

Many hogs being raised by 4H participants in Utah may be carrying a gene that can negatively impact the texture and taste of their meat, according to an agricultural researcher at Utah State University. 

Josh Dallin, a specialist in livestock, horse and agriculture for Utah State’s 4-H extension, conducted a research project involving the genetic mutation in market hogs.

According to Dallin, a small sampling was collected at the beginning of last year in Kane and Garfield counties, and many tested positive for the Rendement Napole gene, also known as RN. 

The RN gene produces pig meat that is “soft, pale and watery,” Dallin said, and also caused to meat to taste leathery, “almost like eating a boot.”

A more recent DNA sample from 140 hogs was collected from all around the state of Utah between May 2016 and September 2016. The results were sent in for testing in late 2016 and 4-H received them in early 2017. The test results found that 37 percent of the random statewide samples were carriers of the gene and seven percent were found to actively possess the mutant gene.

Dallin found the results “alarming and disheartening” due to the amount of hogs found to be at risk.

However, the more pressing issue to Dallin is the lack of education amongst the agricultural community about these genetic mutations.

“We have all of these genetic tests, all of this genetic research, but interestingly enough, people aren’t paying attention to the genetic side of things,” Dallin said. “They are paying attention to the phenotypic side of things.”

That’s especially true in the 4H world, where livestock shows for up-and-coming agriculturists emphasize animals’ physical appearance.

Dallin said “big muscular, skeletally correct” hogs are the ones that typically win prizes at 4H shows. He even called these hogs “Arnold Schwarzenegger hogs” because of their size.

“This is the world that we live in now,” said Clay Isom, an expert in animal genetics and professor at Utah State, “where we have access to this type of molecular genetic information.”

Embracing that information, Isom said, is key to addressing global food needs.

“We’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet in the next 20 to 30 years and we’ve got to be able to feed all these people,” Isom said.

“This is going on in the swine industry, sheep industry, horse industry, cattle industry, crop science fields; it’s going on everywhere,” Isom said. “This is not just an isolated event or idea confined to this particular RN genetic mutation. This is something that is being considered and talked about and implemented all over the country and in a lot of different segments in the industry.”

“Why are we doing this?” Dallin asked. “Why are we not paying attention to this final product? Yeah, we want to get a good show buckle or ribbon in the show ring, but we have people that are coming to support the livestock auction that are buying what has been deemed a blue-ribbon animal, yet they are taking it home and putting it in the freezer and finding that it’s not… as far as the meat is concerned.”

Currently there is no requirement in livestock prizes that involve the quality of the livestock’s genetics. Dallin predicted it is not probable that this will change in the near future because it is not cost effective. 

A former participant himself, Dallin said the most important thing about the research conducted through 4-H is the educational implications. 

“How do we solve this problem?” Dallin asked. “And that’s where 4-H comes into play, and that’s where the youth side comes into play.” 

The 4-H extension plans to implement several workshops over the next year teaching about their scientific findings and discussing the implications of these results with club members.

The sooner young agriculturalists can be educated about the consequences of such mutations, and the avenues that are available to address them, the better off the agricultural community is going to be in the long run, according to Isom.

“It will be a grassroots effort to educate and implement some of these genetic testing programs to help bring up a higher quality product to the show ring, and ultimately the consumer,” Isom said.