Denmark’s International Pig Welfare Conference certainly looked interesting on paper and more than lived up to that promise.
It was a smart move by Denmark’s agriculture minister, Dan Jørgensen, to arrange the event, and even though attendance was free, the 400 or so participants from around the world had to work for their supper (literally, there was an excellent formal dinner at the end of the first day) by debating and shaping the proposals that Denmark and its pig welfare partners – The Netherlands, Germany and Sweden – will take forward. This process took place at a series of seven workshop sessions, each tackling one of Mr Jørgensen’s key areas of concern.
I attended the castration workshop. The practice of surgical castration may have been banned in the UK some time ago, but it’s still widely used throughout Europe and there’s a great deal of concern within the pig sector about what the future holds.
As things stand, Europe is supposed to be on a trajectory to end surgical castration without anaesthetic by January 1, 2018, but there are doubts this target will be achieved.
A major stumbling block is the time it takes to carry out the process: it involves injecting anaesthetic into each testicle and into the scrotum, and then waiting for about 30 seconds for it to take effect before carrying on with the procedure. The industry argues that would make it too expensive to contemplate.
The reason the European industry is so keen to hold onto surgical castration is a genuinely held fear that any other approach will put valuable export markets at risk. And with some processors already destroying carcases found to be affected by boar taint, the prospect of routinely putting entire boars through that sort of system just doesn’t bear thinking about.
A potential alternative discussed widely at the conference, including in the castration workshop, was using Zoetis’ Improvac vaccine to delay puberty and reduce the risk of boar taint. Although this required injecting male pigs, the process was still far quicker than surgical castration with anaesthetic. Importantly, it wouldn’t be considered a mutilation either.
Improvac has already gained a strong following in Belgium, but Denmark and Germany remain worried that the treatment may not be accepted by export customers. Researchers at Denmark’s’ Aarhus University says that China and Japan remain sceptical about the practice; and The Dutch are not that keen either. There are real concerns that consumers in these countries will never accept this immunological approach to preventing boar taint.
As it stands, the whole issue is so sensitive that none of the processors even want to raise the question of using Improvac with their export customers in China – so their attitude is actually unknown.
Europe’s pork exporters must have their fingers crossed that China’s middle-class consumers also adopt an anti-castration stance, opening the door for novel boar taint solutions.