The debate about Improvac use in the UK has been going on for a few years now with apparently very little movement. There are two main sticking points that the boar taint vaccine keeps coming up against: the first is that the Red Tractor standard prohibits castration; and the other is a perceived reluctance by the UK’s retailers to sell pork finished using the product.
It turns out that the first of these issues could be easily dealt with. Producer and processor support for changing the Red Tractor standard to read “surgical castration” would leave the way open for Improvac use. So far there haven’t been any moves to do this, but the assurance body has stated it would be open to allowing properly established trials to look more closely at the potential benefits of the vaccine.
The second issue is more difficult to tackle, and that’s the power that the UK’s big supermarkets have over the pig supply chain. Fear of bad publicity – even when there’s no evidence to support it – is just too much of a risk for them to take.
The situation couldn’t be more different on The Continent, where Improvac has been embraced by the retail sector in Belgium in particular.
I was invited by Zoetis to join a visit to that country by UK pig sector representatives – including farmers, vets and retailers – at the beginning of March, and the attitude there was refreshing. The largest Belgian supermarket, Colruyt, required its pig suppliers to switch from surgical castration to using Improvac in 2010 and hasn’t looked back. And the welfare benefits of using the vaccine versus the scalpel aren’t the most important part of the story – the fact is that the taste and texture of the meat has also been proved to be better in taste tests and laboratory analysis. And, of course, there’s a complete absence of boar taint.
And it’s not just large supermarkets that have adopted Improvac. The UK group also visited a high-end independent food retailer that had also made the switch and was delighted with the outcome. Certainly the samples of pork we got the chance to try were among the best I’ve tasted – and were deliberately prepared without seasoning to let the true flavour of the meat come through.
In a market that’s crying out for quality and differentiation, surely its time for someone to get Improvac-treated pork into UK stores and test it with consumers. Sell it for its better taste and texture, explain how to cook it and offer a money-back guarantee for disappointed customers.
Not only is there potential to build a new brand that could help pork achieve its true value in a commodity market, there’s the opportunity to show the supermarkets that consumers are smart enough to make up their own mind about Improvac – and potentially open the whole UK market up to the benefits of this technology.