Boars information ready for use
From January 1, 2019 pigs in Germany may no longer be castrated without anesthesia. This is enshrined in German law. Major retailers such as Rewe, Edeka west, Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd want to take the step towards non-castration two years earlier. Animal protection organizations play an important role in this process.
In Germany, however, a number of stakeholders inside the production chain wonder whether the deadline is realistic. On June 9, 2016 the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Berlin organized a symposium on the theme of castration. All the links in the German pork chain were involved. Positions, opportunities and threats were discussed. Two German agricultural magazines TopAgrar and SUS published large articles in which the complexity and the various dilemmas were discussed. The articles can be read on the site of Boars on the way.
The German trade press is clear. Parties should move and not sit on their hands. The ban on castration without anesthesia is “ein heisses Thema” (a hot issue).
Various parties in the German pig chains brought their concerns forward to emphasize that there are many questions and there is little information available to make choices. Some parties in Germany are now seeing boars on the road. This is comparable to the situation a few years ago in the Netherlands.
Boars on the way is an initiative with the aim to stop castration of male pigs in Europe by promoting international market acceptance of meat from boars. In many countries in recent years research funded by the EU has also been conducted on the possibilities and consequences of non-castration. The research during the last years gradually unraveled myths and uncertainties about boar taint. To continuously draw the attention on the available knowledge and experiences in Europe, the information was bundled and actively shared via the website Boarsontheway.com, lectures, press trips and media coverage.
As project leader research for Boars on the way it is my role and responsibility to lead research, analyze results and come up with concrete recommendations to realize the ambition of Boars on the way. The quality and image of pork has the highest priority and is the golden standard. This principle is of utmost importance. Within the international Expert Group set up by the EU we have, together with leading institutes, gathered knowledge and research results around stopping castration. That information is made available to all market parties and production chains in Europe.
Germany has made a clear choice and is on the move when it comes to castration. As of 2019 there is a ban on castration without anesthesia. There are approximately two years to go. We have experienced in the Netherlands that it is possible. Questions about our experiences with non-castration are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Beliefs or evidence?
Talking about farming and marketing entire male pigs often ends up in talking about the risk of boar taint. Piglet castration is a clear illustration how much time it takes for new evidence to replace age old habits and views.
Paul Slovic published in Science (1987) an important paper on the perception of risk. Why are some people afraid of flying in an airplane while they at the same time have no problem to riding in a car, with a much higher probability of ending up in a fatal accident? In his introduction Slovic described that psychological research discovered a set of strategies people employ in order to deal with uncertainty and risk. Although these strategies are often valid, they can also lead to large and persistent biases with serious implications. Research on perceptions and cognitions has shown that difficulties in understanding probabilities, biased media coverage, and misleading personal experiences cause risks to be misjudged: sometimes overestimated and sometimes underestimated. It is also striking that disagreements about risk should not be expected to immediately evaporate in the presence of evidence. Strong initial views are resistant to change because they influence the way subsequent information is interpreted. New evidence appears reliable if it is consistent with one’s initial beliefs. Contrary evidence tends to be dismissed as unreliable.
What would happen when we apply the above findings to the case of producing and marketing entire male pigs? The castration case clearly poses both business opportunities and threats. It is related to uncertainty and risk, especially to the risk of consumers confronted with boar tainted meat and consequently reduced consumption of pig meat. We can observe that many people over time have established strong views on the risk of boar taint and the (lacking) perspectives of detecting it. Nevertheless, the Dutch food retail industry made the shift to selling boar meat in 2011. A new detection method, based on many thousands of observations collected during several research experiments, provided apparently sufficient evidence to build trust and start selling boar meat. And in their own words: when looking back in 2014, with no problem at all.
Waited too long
On 25 June 2013, 200 Germans and 1 Dutchman met in the Jerusalemkirche in Berlin to discuss the theme of ‘Verzicht auf betubungslose Ferkelkastration’ (stopping the unanaesthetised castration of piglets). The event was organised by the Ministry of Agriculture and QS (a German umbrella organisation for quality control). As we have become accustomed to, the programme was full and consisted of 11 presentations. All the subjects were dealt with in a typically gründlich [thorough] German manner. Furthermore, slaughterhouse, animal welfare and food trade representatives made statements on the theme. This subject also proceeded as expected: some think things are going too fast and others think things are going too slow. The conference was concluded with a very good forum discussion.
A similar conference was organised in November 2010. Also in Berlin and with 200 participants. Looking back at both conferences, I considered whether new developments had appeared or was it all ‘Im Osten nichts Neues’ [nothing new in the east]?
An initial difference was that the discussion concerning the best anaesthetic method was a prominent issue in 2010 and received much less attention this time around. Immunovaccination was discussed a lot more this time. This is logical because the product has now been approved for some time. The discussion dealt with, among other things, the government ordained text on the product label (Beipackzettel). This warning was said to deter consumers. It was reiterated that the product is not a hormone. Market parties once again expressed their concern that this would not be enough to allay consumer fears because the product does, after all, intervene in the animal’s hormonal system.
Another difference was the tone adopted when discussing ‘Ebermast’. If, in 2010, it was emphatically indicated that the trade would not accept any risks whatsoever with regard to odour deviations, the opening sentences were now very different. Speakers still emphasised that consumers should not encounter meat with a deviant odour, however, the opening sentence was ‘Ebermast ist fA?r uns eine Alternative’ [boar fattening is an acceptable alternative for us]. It is clear that the urgency the industry senses has only increased: “Das Thema Ferkelkastration ist eine offene Flanke in der Fleischwirtschaft die wir schlieAYen mA?ssen” [The piglet castration theme is a vulnerability in the meat industry that must be obviated]. Even more clear was the input from the chairman of the Deutsche Tierschutzbund [German animal welfare organisation]. If in 2010 their contribution was still almost timid, the tone was very different this time. He indicated that they had put the theme on the agenda years ago, but basically did not do enough with it. This has changed. The chairman stated quite clearly that: “Die vom Tierschutz gegebene Kreditzeit ist abgelaufen. Wir haben schon zu lange gewartet.” [The Tierschutz granted grace period is over. We have already waited too long.].
Annechien ten Have
Even if you look at something from various perspectives and have different points of departure when cooperating, you are still stronger together. This was one of the basic premises for the European Community. It also applies to stopping castration.
Cooperation was paramount when 31 organisations signed the Brussels declaration in 2010. The former expressed the joint ambition to voluntarily stop castration. The parties in the various countries got to work. Each in their own way. The EU Committee organised a conference in December 2012 at which reports were provided on the studies conducted and the activities undertaken. On the basis of this report on the state of affairs it was agreed that a European expert group would be set up.
On 17 June 2013, the European Commission organised an initial meeting for the expert group. All the chain parties are represented in it. The idea is to use work groups to mutually exchange information, learn from one another and get new ideas. And also to overcome problems together. For example, one of the major obstacles that needs to be overcome is the market acceptance of pork from uncastrated pigs.
We can achieve good things if we collaborate in Europe. Together we are stronger. European pigs, European pig farmers and European consumers deserve it.
Coming, staying and disappearing
Carola van der Peet – Schwering
Castrating pigs is a subject that regularly reared its head in discussions concerning and within pig farming in recent decades. Over the 28 years that I have worked as a pig husbandry researcher, I have seen the subject come and go several times. However, the last time it cropped up it didn’t go away. It stayed. After the Noordwijk Declaration I wondered whether it would actually happen this time around. Would we really stop castrating pigs? That would be exceptional. And it is going to be, as it’s going to happen. The process can no longer be stopped.
There are pros and cons to stopping pig castration. With the pros outweighing the cons. Improving animal welfare and reducing labour for the pig farmer are the two most prominent advantages. But there are more. For example, boars’ more efficient feed conversion makes them less environmentally burdening. On the other hand, raising uncastrated pigs provides additional challenges to pig farmers. Young boars are, just like human adolescents, troubled by hormones and therefore more restless. They are also more sensitive to change and unexpected situations. Pig farmers will have to learn to cope with this. I have noticed that – in practice – most pig farmers are more than capable of doing so.
The major steps taken over the past five years with regard to stopping castration once again re-affirm that the Dutch pig farming sector wishes to move forward. Innovation is in the sector’s genes. The issue of pig castration re-emerged at the start of the century. This time around, it stayed on the agenda. Only to, in the foreseeable future, disappear forever.
Myths about boar taint
In the 1980s, the American Slovic conducted groundbreaking research into what people consider dangerous. One of the surprising results was that people are less afraid of skateboarding than they are of DNA technology. Even though we have been using DNA technology for thousands of years to domesticate agricultural animals and the statistics on skateboarding accidents underline the risks inherent in the activity. According to Slovic it is also very difficult to change citizens’ opinions on what is and isn’t risky. The extent to which an opinion has the character of a deep-seated conviction influences the processing of new information. New data is viewed as reliable and informative if it is in line with the person’s own convictions. If it is not, it is however often assessed as incorrect, unreliable or not representative.
The above also applies to boar taint. Those involved have deep-seated convictions concerning the phenomena. A number of these have however been obviated over time. The results of studies into boar taint have done away with an increasing number of myths which get in the way of thinking about possible solutions. These myths are prejudices that constitute barriers to change.
For example, you can still read on many websites that boar taint is detected in the meat of over 20% of all boars. This percentage is derived from the threshold value in meat for androstenone and skatole: substances that make an important contribution to boar taint. The threshold value for skatole that is often mentioned is 0.25 mg/kg fat, for androstenone it’s 1.0 mg/kg fat. Above these thresholds the risk of boar taint being observed increases. In recent years in the Netherlands, we have tested well over 1.5 million boars for boar taint. The latter is detected in the meat of approximately 4% of the animals. A considerable difference with the abovementioned 20%. This is because among the threshold values for androstenone and skatole there are a lot of so-called false positive samples. These consist of meat in which the percentages of androstenone and skatole exceed the threshold values, but whereby many consumers nevertheless do not detect boar taint. For instance, far from everyone can smell androstenone and not everyone smells in the same way either. Some people even like the smell of androstenone. The androstenone and skatole percentages are not accurate predictors for consumers detecting boar taint.
The above contains two myths. The first is that consumers detect boar taint in 20% of the meat from boars. This however proves to only be 4%; and this meat can be detected on the slaughterhouse’s production line using detection methods. The second is that consumers think androstenone smells bad. In reality, 30-35% of people cannot smell androstenone and 20% even think it smells nice.
Another myth concerns the idea that boar taint is inherited from boar to boar. In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to selecting boars with a low breeding value for boar taint who would then supposedly burden their half of the inherited genes as little as possible with this trait. However, sows can also pass on boar taint. That might sound illogical, but it isn’t. The genes for boar taint occur in mother and father equally. Selection according to the breeding value for boar taint in the mother proves to work almost as well as the breeding value in the father. This is more logical than it seems as the level of boar taint in sow lines is clearly higher than that in the boar lines; there’s more to be passed on.
Slowly, but surely our research is unravelling such myths. This not only does away with non-existent barriers, but allows us to work on the right solutions more rapidly. This requires a critical, open attitude towards new information as well as openness to new insights. Bias and lack of self-reflection do not clear the way for true progress.
Non-castration picking up steam
Annechien ten Have-Mellema
I recently visited Bretagne at the invitation of Cooperl. I related our experiences with boar raising at their annual meetings for their pig farming members. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw and heard.
First, a little information on Cooperl. Cooperl is a cooperation that annually slaughters some 5 million pigs. It also produces 1.5 million tons of animal feed and collects 150,000 tons of grains. Moreover, the cooperation has 80 butchers’ shops and catering companies. Cooperl also owns a number of meat processing plants.
Now for a little history: In 2004, the EFSA referred to piglet castration as a painful intervention. At the end of 2007, the Verklaring van Noordwijk [Noordwijk declaration] was signed in the Netherlands. In it, the intention to stop castration in 2015 was expressed. In 2009, the Düsseldorf Declaration was issued: Germany wished to stop castration in 2017. 2010 saw the signing of the Brussels Declaration to stop castration in 2018.
It is interesting to know what happened in France. My recent visit provided me with insight into this. There they quietly kept working. First on orientation and later on trials. Cooperl has been developing the ‘Porc Bien-Etre’ project since 2008. The organisation first collected information. (We did the same in the Netherlands in collaboration with De Dierenbescherming [animal protection organisation] as part of the working party “Beren op de weg” [Dutch play on words, ‘Boars on the road/underway] in the early 2000s). They first trialled Improvac which is manufactured by Pfizer. However, Improvac still constitutes an intervention; the animals have to be vaccinated twice at a precise point in time and this costs € 3 per pig, etc. Cooperl decided to keep looking. In 2011, in cooperation with an initial group of 40 pig farmers, they conducted a pilot into non-castration. In 2012, a second group of farmers took part using pigs with various DNA profiles. Cooperl gained experience with slaughterhouse detection. Then its representatives travelled to the Netherlands to see how we conduct human nose detection. The technical and economic results were then studied as a result of which they decided to definitively stop castration in 2013. In order to inform their pig farmers, they organised an information meeting in February 2013. There, they informed the pig farmers about market and social developments. A vet highlighted animal health. The technical results were discussed as was the feed composition for boars. Finally, they had a French pig farmer who had been part of the pilot relate his experiences. In addition, I was asked to come over from the Netherlands to tell attendants about boar raising in practice. They were also interested in pork consumption in the Netherlands. And I had good news for them: the trend in the Netherlands as far as pork consumption is concerned does not deviate negatively from that in countries that do castrate. Non-castration has no effect on consumption.
In short, Cooperl decided to not castrate. The process may have seemed low profile, but it was very thoroughly prepared. I am forced to conclude that that non-castration is picking up steam.
Pigs don’t live on an island
I wrote my first blog post (for a Dutch trade newsletter) on ending the castration of pigs in Week 50 of 2006. I gave my opinion on the ‘island mentality’ of the large majority of the Netherlands’ Lower House MPs discussing the budget of the Ministry of Agriculture. I was surprised
that during a debate on the government’s budget animal welfare was almost the sole subject of discussion. At no time were the effects for the pork chain referred to. The Netherlands’ Lower House stubbornly persisted in focusing on animal welfare, as if the pigs lived on an island, completely forgetting that there is also a pig reality on the ‘mainland’.
In Week 49 of 2007, I proudly wrote that agreement had been reached with all the parties in the Dutch pork production chain: the so-called Noordwijk Declaration. It was agreed that our goal would be to end castrating pigs in the Netherlands by 2015. An ambitious plan which entailed considerable uncertainty with regard to feasibility and the knock-on effects.
At the close of 2012, I briefly took stock and saw that great strides had been made in the Netherlands. Almost half the pigs in the country are no longer castrated. In the Netherlands, retailers have made the transition to pork from uncastrated animals. However, abroad there are clearly problems on the sales side. Pork buyers often have cold feet and demand meat that originates from piglets that have been castrated. Complete with financial penalties for those who supply meat from uncastrated animals. I refer to them as ‘island inhabitants with a limited perspective’.
In 2012, Europe announced its strategy for animal welfare for the period up until 2015. The Commission’s new strategy is cross border. The market and consumers are leading. It also emphatically takes the economic effects into account. The strategy’s subtitle is: ‘Everyone is responsible’. With this, the EU indicates that pigs don’t live on an island and that ending castration is a joint effort which everyone, from the pig farmers right the way through to retailers and consumers, is responsible for.
In the Netherlands, retailers have made immense progress in collaboration with the Declaration of Noordwijk partners. It is now very important to take the same steps in other European countries so that Europe ceases to consist of islands and becomes a sturdy mainland when it comes to castrating our pigs.