Waited too long

Gé Backus

On 25 June 2013, 200 Germans and 1 Dutchman met in the Jerusalemkirche in Berlin to discuss the theme of ‘Verzicht auf betübungslose 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 für 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 schliessen müssen” [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.].

Myths about boar taint

Gé Backus

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.