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Feature

Ending pig castration in the EU: a long road ahead

By Carina Perkins , 16-Dec-2011
Last updated on 16-Dec-2011 at 12:37 GMT

Earlier this month, farmers, meat processors, retailers, scientists, veterinarians and animal welfare lobbyists gathered in Amsterdam to discuss progress towards voluntarily ending pig castration in Europe by 2018. Carina Perkins reports on some of the opportunities and challenges identified.

In Dec 2010, key stakeholders from the European pig industry signed an agreement to voluntarily end surgical castration of pigs in Europe by January 1st, 2018. The agreement, which was prompted by pressure from welfare groups over the issue of castration, included a first step of ensuring that from 1 January 2012, any surgical castration of pigs will be performed with prolonged analgesia and/or anaesthesia.

The partnership that signed the agreement agrees that ending the castration of pigs would have animal welfare benefits, as well as benefits for the farmer. But there are also some challenges related to raising un-castrated boars, and market acceptance of un-castrated boar meat.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge is the risk of ‘boar taint’, a penetrating odour in pork which occurs when the meat is heated, and which some consumers find unpleasant. It is believed that there are three compounds responsible for boar taint: androstenone, skatole and indole. Androstenone is a testicular steroid, which is important for creating semen of the boar. This process begins at approximately 18 weeks and at a weight of 60 kilos. Skatole is a non-sex specific substance which is three time more concentrated in male pigs than females. The risk of boar taint is therefore much higher in non-castrated, heavier males then in castrated males, young males or females.

Statistics on how many boars are tainted, and how many consumers find it unpleasant, are inconsistent. Dr. Ir. Gé Backus a scientist from the LEI Wageningen University and Research centre in the Netherlands and the “driving force” behind the Boars to 2018 conference, told delegates that while some claim that as many as 20% of boars are tainted, research suggests that the figure is more like 3 or 4%. Additionally, it is assumed that consumers don’t like the smell of androstenone but research has shown that 30% of people can’t smell it and 20% actually like it.

Despite this variance, however, the majority of European retailers are not currently willing to take the risk. Hubert Kelliger, Head of Sales nationally, Westfleisch eG, Germany, said that in a survey of 100 top clients in 2010, 98% said that they didn’t want non-castrated boar meat.

Prevention and detection

It is possible to reduce the incidence of boar taint through management and nutrition, and possibly through genetics, but delegates heard that these methods are still in the early stages of development. Detection of tainted meat on the slaughterhouse is also primitive, with the human nose the only option currently available to processors. Westfleisch eG currently has people on-line smelling carcasses, but Kelliger admitted: “At a high speeds it is very difficult to find tainted animals. You either find too many or two few.”

Delegates discussed the possibility of alternative detection methods, using electronic or or chemical processes. However, they agreed that it would be difficult to develop such a system without a deeper understanding of the process that causes boar taint; testing for skatole and androstenone will not necessarily identify boar taint because levels of these compounds seem to vary widely in tainted meat.

With all this in mind, delegates agreed that considerably more research was needed into the prevention of boar taint, detection methods and market acceptance. The European Commission has pledged €1,330,000 towards a research programme but Dr. MA Angels Oliver, Researcher and coordinator of the Product Quality Program at IRTA, Spain, warned that the budget for the research into new technologies for on-line detection was “not sufficient”.

Welfare issues

Boar taint aside, ending pig castration creates some other challenges for the industry. Non-castrated boars have better feed conversion rates, producing around 2/3% more meat and less manure. According to pig farmer Annechien ten Have-Mellema, ending castration has the financial benefit of €7 per pig, and “is the end of an inconvenient labour.”

However, non-castrated boars show more aggressive behaviour than castrated males, including fighting, mounting and ‘rape’ of gilts and other boars. This has consequences for animal welfare and as Kelliger pointed out, “we don’t solve the castration problem and have another problem.”

Have-Mellema said that careful management of boars had produced good results on her farm, but delegates agreed that more work needed to be done into boar behaviour and ways to manage it, such as ad lib feeding systems, enrichment straw and single sex pens or stabilised groups.

Parma ham

Another key issue is the production needs of specialist regional producers, such as Italy’s Parma ham industry. Around 90% of the Italian pig population is located in the Protected Designation Origin region for Parma ham and farmers get €30 extra per pigs produced for the delicacy. Parma ham is worth €1.76bn in annual retail sales, with €360m exported every year. As Marcello Marchesi, of ASSOCARNI, Italy explained, “Italian production is Parma ham.”

As a result of its Parma ham production, Italy has unique and individual carcase weights – 160 kilo liveweight compared to a 108k European average. Pigs are also slaughtered later, at an average of 9 months. Additionally, a certain level of fat is required for Parma ham production.

This has obvious implications when considering an end to castration. Heavy, older pigs are far more likely to be tainted and higher levels of testosterone have been found in oars with higher back fat levels. Italy has done field trials with immunocastration, but found that the resulting carcasses had to be trimmed higher to remove the testes, and would no longer meet the requirements of Parma ham.

Currently, there is a derogation in the European agreement for traditional breeds and regional specialties, but animal welfare groups are pushing for this to be removed. Michel Courat, policy officer for farm animals at Eurogroup for Animals said that they would “oppose this completely.”

As Dr. Ir. Gé Backus pointed out, this dilemma “is not just an Italian problem, but a European problem because we all like this product.”

Looking forward

By the end of the conference, it was clear that there is much to be done if the industry is to meet its target of ending castration of pigs in Europe. Not least to ensure that the agreement is signed by all stakeholders in the European industry – Spain and France are noticeably missing to date. Further research into all aspects is essential but it is uncertain where the money for this research will come from, and dilemmas such as those faced by the parma ham production industry will not be easy to solve. The first steps have been made, but it is a long road ahead to 2018.

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