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EU Study Does Not Recommend End to Castration in the Short Term

by 5m Editor
3 September 2010, at 12:00am

A report for the European Commission's DG SANCO concludes that there should be no ban on pig castration in the EU in the short-term but that a combination of different strategies is required to find a solution to balance aspects of animal welfare with the risks of boar taint in pig meat.


The report, written by M.A. Oliver, C. Thomas, M. Bonneau, O. Doran, G. Tacken and G. Backus was entitled Study of the Improved Methods for Animal-Friendly Production, in Particular on Alternatives to Pig Castration and is dated December 2009. It was part of the ALCASDE (ALternatives to CAStration and DEhorning) project. Here, we present the executive summary with a link below to the full report.

The overall objective of the project was to provide recommendations based on research results on alternatives to the surgical castration of pigs to support EU policy. The specific objectives of project were:

  • to develop and promote alternatives to the surgical castration of pigs, specially the production of boars
  • to develop methods for boar taint detection on the slaughter line
  • to develop objective measurement for the meat quality, and
  • to carry out a survey on the demand and acceptance of consumers of meat from boars.

A module was designed aiming at ensuring the dissemination of knowledge generated by the project through stakeholder involvement, e-learning techniques, website and specific workshops. A web site (www.alcasde.eu) was set up to describe project objectives and actions and also to allow exchange between partners. An e-learning (web-based interactive) course on Alternatives to Pig Castration was developed and is available through the project web site. To allow a wider stakeholder comment on project outputs, an International Symposium on Pig Castration was organized in Bologna in October 2009. Alternatives to castration and markets for meat from entire males were discussed. It was attended by 78 delegates, representative of stakeholders, scientific community and society of Europe (15 countries and 50 institutions).

The main conclusion of the Symposium was that the production of entire males is a feasible option in some markets but there is a risk that such meat might not be accepted by consumers because boar taint-free meat cannot be guaranteed. Also the scale of production might exceed market demand for boars. As a general outcome of the Symposium, promotion of meetings between stakeholders, representatives of the society and scientists to discuss together issues of common interest in a European context is highly recommended. Further development of e-learning materials and translation to other languages is also recommended.

Alternatives to surgical castration through management were studied and the main results obtained were as follows. Farmers did not perceive having more problems than usually met with castrated males. Androstenone and skatole levels were determined in a limited number of farms; the incidence of boar tainted carcasses could not be determined due to the absence of clear threshold acceptability levels. Housing conditions and enrichment of the environment can improve the welfare in both males and castrates by reducing aggressiveness and probably also the level of chronic stress, although further studies are needed to confirm this. The project also investigated a possibility of the development of breed-specific genetic tests for boar taint, which could be used for selective breeding. Breed-specific mechanisms controlling skatole and androstenone accumulation were studied and a number of candidate genes have been identified.

Three different approaches for the development of skatole and androstenone on-line sensors were investigated and (i) description of a novel rapid method for analysis of skatole and androstenone in solid phase (fat) was provided; (ii) optimised conditions and sampling strategies for FTIR-Photo Acoustic Spectroscopy for skatole and androstenone analyses in gas-phase and solid-phase were determined and (iii) description of the 'trained insects' approach for the boar taint compounds detection was provided. A programme for future research and commercialisation of on-line skatole and androstenone detection methods was developed. In addition an inter-laboratory comparison of skatole analyses by four traditional techniques was conducted. On the basis of the outcomes obtained, recommendations and a programme for research on harmonisation of boar taint detection methodology were given. An industry-orientated workshop was organised in order to stimulate dialog between researchers and industry; to give overview of the existing and developing technologies; and to obtain industry view and specifications for boar taint detection technology.

The evaluation of the demand and acceptance of consumers was another main objective of study. A European consumer study was conducted in six countries, France (FR), Germany (DE), Italy (IT), The Netherlands (NL), Spain (ES) and United Kingdom (UK), to provide scientific results on attitudes and acceptability. Consumer preferences towards pig castration and boar taint were heterogeneous across countries. The analytical hierarchy process showed that, in general, the aggregated weight of the attribute 'gender of the animal' on buying decision goes from 5.90 per cent to 10.42 per cent, while 'expected price' and 'expected taste' were the more important attributes, going from 18 to 33 per cent and to 40 to 57 per cent, respectively. In the acceptability test, loin meat from females, from entire males with boar taint and from entire males without boar taint, was blindly tested. The tested samples had different androstenone levels among countries: In DE, NL, FR and IT levels were around 2µg/g while in ES and UK they were around 1µg/g.

Differences on acceptability (How delicious, abnormal odour, taste etc) among consumer from the different countries were found. In FR, IT and NL significant differences were found between the consumer perception of tainted boar meat and gilt meat; tainted boar meat was considered less acceptable. However in ES, UK and DE, these differences were not significant. In conclusion, tainted meat would not be accepted by a certain percentage of consumers (10 to 48 per cent, depending on the country and the androstenone level of the meat). From the people that perceived abnormalities, 28 to 74 per cent would not serve the meat to their family, 40 to 56 per cent would not buy pig meat again for a while and 22 to 61 per cent would not revisit the shop. The present study provides a basis to confirm that Northern-Western countries are more aware to animal welfare, while in the Southern countries there is more attention to expected taste.

Finally, an economic assessment of pig meat chains without surgical castration was performed.

A pilot model was applied for NL, FR ('genetic selection, altering management strategies and slaughter at a lower weight' scenario) and IT ('immunocastration' scenario). The cost-effectiveness of measures to reduce levels of androstenone, skatole and indole varied greatly.

For NL and FR, combined selection on boar taint and on economics traits was much more cost-effective than selection pressure on boar taint only, and also much more cost-effective than slaughtering at a lower weight. Split-sex group rearing was very cost-effective. Assuming market acceptance for non boar tainted meat and limited market acceptance for boar tainted meat, the results indicate that raising boars may be beneficial mainly due to a better feed conversion ratio. The costs and benefits of raising boars were not equally distributed across the various segments of the pork chain. Pig farmers would benefited from a better feed conversion ratio, and slaughter plants were confronted with a discount for boar tainted meat. The calculated discount for boar tainted meat was low compared to the feed cost reduction, although further studies are needed to confirm this. These costs may, however, increase when large numbers of European pork producers convert to raising boars. The immunocastration scenario for IT resulted in a better economic farm performance.

As a general conclusion of the project, it cannot be recommended to ban pig castration in a short-time period, mainly because the meat from boars cannot be guaranteed to be free of boar taint. Due to the potential risks that it would entail (i.e. economic, welfare, meat quality) a combination of different strategies rather than a single solution is envisaged.

The following points summarise the need for short-term research:

  1. Comprehensive large-scale international research on harmonisation of boar taint detection technologies, and completion of the development and validation of novel rapid on-line skatole and androstenone detection methods in close collaboration (and following specifications) with the end-users.
  2. An European survey to determine the incidence of various androstenone and skatole levels at breeding stage and at the production level. Further studies are also needed to improve pig welfare in relation to the different alternatives to castration.
  3. Large-scale study to go in depth into preferences and behaviour of European consumers in relation to fresh pig meat products, and cured or smoked products from entire males and females. This study should be performed in collaboration with end-users such as Consumer Associations and retailers within different Eastern, Southern, Western and Northern countries and would provide information on the niche markets from meat from entire males.

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.


September 2010
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