Both animal welfare benefits and meat quality gains are being claimed for vaccinating rather than surgically castrating to beat tainted porkGuest commentary

Now is a pivotal moment in Europe’s effort to stop piglet castration. Three years ago, stakeholders from throughout the European pork chain agreed to voluntarily stop castrating piglets without anesthesia and pain relief, with the goal of banning surgical castration entirely by 2018. Chronologically, we are now well past the halfway point. In practice, however, we still have a long way to go.

We believe we can and must stick to our original goal and timeline — for the good of pigs, and for the good of consumers who increasingly care about animal welfare. Even with the requirement of anesthesia and pain relief, castration is uncomfortable for piglets, unpleasant and inefficient for producers, and difficult to monitor and enforce.

The good news is that effective castration alternatives already exist. Due to fears of limited market acceptance, however, they are unfortunately not being used as much as they could be. To make the end of castration a reality, it won’t be enough to simply find alternatives. To make this change sustainable, retailers must do more to support the adoption of these alternatives on farms.

Entire male production

The main reason piglets are castrated is to prevent boar taint, a potentially off-putting odor that is sometimes found in the meat of sexually mature male pigs. It also reduces aggression, resulting in less stress and fewer injuries. One alternative is to raise entire or intact males and slaughter them at a younger age (and lower weight), before boar taint and aggression have a chance to develop.

Commonly practiced in the UK, Ireland and in parts of Spain, Portugal and Greece, entire male production is also on the rise in countries that have traditionally castrated. The Netherlands currently raises about half of its boars entire, and in France, 7 percent of boars are now left intact — a small percentage, overall, but a significant recent development.

Entire male rearing promotes pig welfare, health and integrity. Furthermore, improved feed conversion — that is, kilograms of feed required to produce 1 kg of weight gain — translates to improved economics for producers and more efficient use of natural resources. Entire males carry a higher risk of boar taint than castrates, but methods of detecting taint on the slaughter line are increasingly being used and developed. There is also evidence to suggest that it can be reduced through genetics, nutrition and farm management; further research will hopefully lead to wider adoption of these methods.

In the meantime, boar-taint sensitivity varies between markets and there is little consensus on what constitutes an acceptable standard. Because pigs must be slaughtered at lower weights to effectively control boar taint, acceptance has been further limited in markets that require heavier pigs for use in specialty products, such as Parma and Iberian ham.

Boar taint vaccine

For markets in which entire male production is not practical or accepted, boar taint vaccine provides an effective and welfare-friendly alternative to surgical castration. By stimulating the pig’s immune system to temporarily delay puberty, the vaccine reduces not only boar taint, but also aggression and sexual behavior that can cause stress and injuries.

stopping piglet surgical castration

  Both animal welfare benefits and meat quality gains are being claimed for vaccinating rather than surgically castrating to beat tainted pork. |  Roger Abbott

 

Like entire male production, the vaccine eliminates the pain and health risks associated with castration. Vaccination can delay puberty even in pigs grown to heavier weights so, compared with rearing entire pigs, it may be better suited to a wider range of markets, including specialty products.

First registered in Australia in 1998, the vaccine is now available in more than 60 countries around the world, including all 28 European Union member states. Like other vaccines, boar taint vaccine works by producing an immunological response, so no chemicals are used, and it causes no damage to the testes. It is not a hormone and cannot accumulate in the tissues of the animal, so it’s also perfectly safe for humans.

Overall, however, the use of boar taint vaccine is still relatively low. Although it has been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy, some European retailers still won’t accept meat from vaccinated pigs — sometimes even when they claim to support vaccination on paper. In Germany, for example, boar taint vaccination is included as an acceptable castration alternative in the guidelines for Initiative Tierwohl (Animal Welfare Initiative), a retailer-backed subsidy scheme that aims to promote high animal welfare standards on German farms. However, several producers who vaccinate their pigs have reported having their applications for subsidies rejected.

Consumer perceptions

In our conversations with retailers, the main reason we hear for not accepting meat from vaccinated pigs is fear of consumer rejection. These fears are based not on the quality of the meat, but on potentially negative consumer perceptions of the vaccine itself. However, these fears appear to be unfounded: in a UK consumer survey, 74 percent of pork consumers said animal welfare was important, and 53 percent said a vaccination to delay puberty in male pigs was acceptable — compared to only 41 percent who thought it acceptable to castrate with anesthesia and pain relief.

Experience provides an even stronger indicator of consumer acceptance. In Belgium, the widespread use of boar taint vaccine has not proved to be a barrier to consumption. To the contrary, Colruyt Group has reported increased sales since it banned castration and started using the vaccine in 2011 as part of a broader effort to raise animal welfare standards.

Ending castration is a responsibility shared by all members of the pork chain. However, as the link between suppliers and consumers, retailers are in an especially powerful position to influence animal welfare policies on farms. Fortunately, good alternatives to castration already exist, but their adoption largely depends on increased retailer acceptance. For the good of pigs, for the good of consumers and for the good of the pork industry, we urge retailers to do more to ensure acceptance of meat from entire and vaccinated boars — not just on paper, but also in practice.