Welfare and meat quality issues bring non-surgical castration back to the table

Retailer reticence remains, but producers and vets are beginning to question why – when benefits to pig welfare and meat quality are significant and Freedom Food endorses it – they’re still denied the option of using immuno-castration when finishing boars. The debate continued at a recent meeting in East Anglia, as Jane Jordan reports

For an industry trading on a reputation for high-welfare pigmeat, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand why non-surgical neutering is not considered valid and/or acceptable.

The general manager of research and innovation at Australian Pork Ltd (APL), Dr Darryl D’Souza, believes the UK should challenge retail perceptions and encourage the supply chain to embrace the scientific and commercial evidence from the many other pig-producing nations that are successfully using immunological castration. Retailers need to understand that it’s safe and simple, and has economic values for the whole pork chain.

More than 60 countries now use immuno-castration with finishing boars. It’s estimated that 1.2 million pigs each week are vaccinated globally with Improvac, an androstenone and skatole (male sex-hormones) suppressing vaccine marketed by Zoetis. About 50% of Brazil’s boars alone are treated with the vaccine. It’s a viable alternative to rearing entire males and can improve pork quality, production efficiency and enhance the welfare of finishing pigs in all production systems.

At a recent meeting organised by Zoetis, East Anglian pig farmers, processors and vets were offered a frank insight into the pitfalls of producing pork from entire boars.

Dr D’Souza explained that although Europe acknowledged immuno-castration as a remedy for boar taint, elsewhere in the world using Improvac was primarily used to gain greater production efficiency, better welfare and as a means of reducing costs and processing penalties.

The taint issue was important, but the benefits immuno-castration brought to pig welfare, carcase value and meat quality were probably more economically significant.

“Improvac is a welfare winner as vaccinated boars are easier to manage, are calmer and not sexually driven so there is far less stress in the system,” he said. “Carcase lesions are noticeably fewer and often insignificant in carcases from immuno-castrates.”

These values, combined with observed improvements to FCR and performance seen on units continually monitored by APL, demonstrate that vaccinating entire boars to suppress sex hormones in the weeks leading up to slaughter has positive and value-added benefits.

In Australia, where Improvac has been used for more than a decade, the advantages to meat quality, taste and consistency of pigmeat were well documented. The market there is similar to the UK, with significant import pressure and a discerning consumer base. APL research confirms that the increased proportion of “immunologically neutered pigs” now being finished by Australian producers is positively influencing the market. There is less incidence of PSE and DFD meat seen in carcases from immuno-castrates, and the percentage of intramuscular fat – a major factor influencing taste and succulence – is considerably higher. These characteristics have been credited with helping Australia’s pig sector increase retail demand for its product and raising consumption.

“Retailers and the supply chain recognise the issues associated with meat from entire male boars; more of them are understanding the relevance of immuno-castration and the value it offers the pork chain,” Dr D’Souza said.

Australians consume about 25kg pigmeat per head, and further growth is expected. Meat quality is driving consumption with increasing interest in domestically produced, premium pork because it’s fresh, healthy and tastes good. This sector is predominantly supplied by meat from gilts and immuno-castrated males.

“APL’s Better Pork strategy is helping build our domestic market and export trade,” Dr D’Souza added. “Quality and flavour are driving this, and we need assurance that the supply chain can consistently produce a high-quality, great-tasting product.”

APL has worked with the supply chain and invested more than £2.7 million in developing specific eating quality pathways. Its research has established that all entire male progeny, no matter their age or liveweight, carries a 25% risk of boar taint. APL made a solid commitment to eradicate this risk where possible, and castration by vaccination is a fundamental part of this.

The industry targets a 10% “taint rate”, with the primary objective to ensure very few consumers will experience “bad pork” as a consequence of eating boar meat.

Producers at the Zoetis meeting supported Dr D’Souza’s views and said they would like the option to use Improvac, particularly with mixed sex groups where aggression levels during the latter stages of the finishing period can be difficult to manage. They said boar taint wasn’t a key issue, although minimising or eliminating it would cut out another potential downgrade.

The retail sector must review immuno-castration as the potential welfare, performance and meat-quality benefits it offers the supply chain can’t be ignored. The opportunity to improve the consistency and quality of the premium British-produced pigmeat they say they want must be explored and farmers should be allowed this choice.

Openness and a clear factual explanation of how and why neutering by vaccination is used would allay consumer concerns and diffuse a tabloid media storm. The licensed vaccine is safe, effective and has an outstanding global track record, and many of the UK’s key competitors have been using it for some time. It’s highly likely that meat from entire, Improvac-treated boars is already entering the UK and frequently stacked on retail shelves.

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