Pigs are, almost by definition, fat.
But what if farmers could raise pigs that produced more lean meat?
Genetic engineering is making “skinny pigs” a reality in China.
Modern pigs lack a protein called UCP1, which helps other animals generate heat without shivering.
Lack of the protein seems to be related to the deposit of fat in pigs.
The result is that pigs, especially newborn piglets, may die more easily from exposure to cold.
And it also requires pigs to add fat for insulation, making pork consumption an unhealthier proposition for humans.
Of mice and pigs
In an experiment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by Qiantao Zheng of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences successfully added UCP1 proteins from mice to pigs.
The alteration resulted in better body-temperature regulation under cold conditions.
It also produced leaner pigs.
The researchers utilized an advanced gene-editing technique called CRISPR, which allows for genetic material to be inserted into the host genome with greater precision.
The bioengineered pigs “are a potentially valuable resource for agricultural production through their combination of cold adaptation, which improves pig welfare and reduces economic losses, with reduced fat deposition and increased lean meat production,” the study noted.
Does it mean healthier meat?
Does that mean that you’ll soon be seeing leaner cuts of pork on your dinner plate?
Not unless farmers start raising genetically engineered pigs — and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clears them for human consumption.
Consumers also would have to be convinced to purchase genetically modified (GMO) meat.
“I think it’s an interesting approach,” Greg Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., told Healthline. “The question is whether there’s enough value in it to bring it to the marketplace.”
Media reports have touted the study as pointing the way toward “healthier bacon” and the “food of the future.”
“From a nutritional standpoint, there probably is a benefit there,” given the high saturated-fat content of pork, Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline.
Hultin said the Chinese research is similar to other innovations aimed at providing protein sources for a growing global population, including experiments in which meat has been grown in the lab from stem cells.
However, experts say the primary beneficiary could be the meat industry, which must spend money on heat lamps and other warming methods to keep young pigs alive.
“Most bioengineering is about producer traits, not just consumer traits,” noted CSPI’s Jaffe.
In response to consumer health concerns, industrial-scale meat producers like Smithfield already breed pigs to produce leaner meat.
But farmers who raise heritage breeds of pigs contend that cutting the fat also cuts the flavor.
GMO food already in the chain
GMO animals have already entered the U.S. food chain.
In 2015, AquaBounty Atlantic salmon, genetically modified to grow faster and consume less than other farm-raised salmon, was approved by the FDA after a long regulatory review period.
Canadian researchers have created less-flatulent cows to cut down on emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
A New Zealand company engineered a cow that produces milk lacking a protein called β-lactoglobulin, which many people are allergic to.
Nor are the Chinese pigs the first to be genetically engineered.
South Korean scientists have created pigs that are more muscular, while Chinese researchers used methods similar to those that produced the “skinny pigs” to create a line of “micro pigs” they hope to sell as pets.
Jaffe isn’t an alarmist about genetically modified foods.
“All the animals we use today have been altered from their wild state,” he pointed out.
However, he said that the continued emergence of bioengineered animals will challenge the FDA to provide proper oversight while still allowing safe products to get to market in a timely fashion.