Vaccination to prevent boar taint without having to castrate male piglets is likely to become available in the European Union within the next 12 months and in the U.S. about six months later, depending on registration processes. This is the forecast of an animal health company that has already launched its anti-taint vaccine in 12 other countries around the world.

Uses pig's immune system

Executives from Pfizer Animal Health made the remark in Switzerland, which has become the first country in Europe to register the company's Improvac vaccine. This product uses the pig's own immune system to temporarily block the function of the testes to reduce the level of boar taint compounds. Application to male piglets is claimed to improve the palatability of the pork as well as the feed conversion of the animal compared with castrates.

"We have found from extensive taste trials that this product improves meat quality," said Pfizer's US-based technical director Jim Allison at the vaccine's Swiss launch in Zurich. "For this reason as well as the fact it provides a practical, humane alternative to surgical castration, it is being welcomed across the supply chain from producers to retailers and consumers."

In fact, promoting the use of a new vaccine has led to the company including retailers and consumers in its marketing plans for the first time. Stephan Martin, director of swine product marketing in Europe and Africa, told the meeting about consultations with all stakeholders in the pork chain to describe how the product had been shown to improve both on-farm production results and eating quality.

Animal and consumer benefits

Mr Martin explained that these discussions encompassed retailers and consumers as well as producers and their advisers, in order to make clear that vaccination of male piglets gave tastier, more palatable pork, as well as have the welfare benefit of eliminating the need to castrate the pigs surgically. He said the improved taste came because although vaccinated pigs — also better than castrates at converting feed into meat — produced a leaner carcase that still showed some of the performance characteristics of an intact boar.

"Sales of the vaccine in countries where it is already available, such as Brazil, are being driven as much by its production benefits as welfare considerations," Mr Martin added. He also claimed that results from taste panels in a number of countries had consistently shown that consumers preferred meat from pigs treated with this vaccine to pork from castrates. What is more, he continued, producers are finding that treated boars are easier to manage in the late finishing period, because the vaccine reduces testosterone levels and limits male sexual and aggressive behaviour.

One possible drawback identified by some participants at the same Swiss meeting referred to the cost of processing carcases from vaccinated pigs. Slaughterhouse operators said their costs could rise because they would need to have an extra line for the removal and disposal of testes from intact boars.