Boar taint is a very delicate issue in the United Kingdom and there are many facets to the problem. From the outset, I have to state that I am a very strong supporter of a British pig industry, but as a person and family that are sensitive to boar taint; it makes my position very difficult. I have been outspoken on the issue in both NPA and BPEX meetings and am hopeful that the new introduction of the ‘boar taint’ vaccine Improvac® (Pfizer Animal Health), will give relief to the afflicted consumer – so that we don’t have to play Russian roulette every time we buy British-reared pork.
My experiences of consuming British fresh pork are very hit or miss. Some joints are fabulous but others are heavily tainted. The worst was outdoor-bred, succulent chops, which even I could not eat, let alone the ladies in the family and the Sunday meal was ruined. Normally, it is not so bad but I think we must remember who normally buys the food and makes the buying decision. If your wife is sensitive to boar taint’s off flavours and smells it as soon as they start cooking British bacon, they will not eat or buy it again. They buy the dreaded Danish bacon or Dutch pork instead.
I don’t believe that we don’t understand the potential situation in the UK but made conscious decisions back in the 1980’s to go down the ‘non-castration’ route for a number of reasons. From the producer’s side there were a number of benefits, such as entire boars grow 10% faster than castrates and had better carcass qualities of leaner meat and less fat. They could be fed more or less ad libitum, instead of having to restrict feeding to stop them laying down too much fat. By not having to castrate, the farmer also saved time and effort, there were fewer wound and hernia problems. For outdoor herds, it was a major benefit; in that they didn’t have to inject the piglet with iron either, so they could be left pretty much on their own, with no check. This improved the so-called ‘welfare’ of the piglet. Whether it was a real welfare concern or an economic benefit, I leave you to decide or remember.
The issue of boar taint was considered even then, but numerous tests and tasting panels confirmed it was a minor issue and the British did no seem to mind, unlike in the rest of Europe. Pigs were killed at a variety of weights then – porkers (60kg), cutters (75kg) and baconers (95kg) and possibly the impact on the younger pigs for fresh pork was considered less likely to be a problem. Now we are killing at much higher weights up to 120kg, does this cause a problem? The scientists seem to say no and recent work presented at our PVS meeting (Wood, 2009) reported that there was little difference in boar taint between 90 and 110kg liveweight but breed and housing may have more of an impact.
The processor has got a good lean carcass to work with and I think the presentation of British pork and further processed meats and bacon is comparable with any other country’s product in the supermarket these days, if not better. However, processors are either importing or further processing fresh pork from the continent, so that only 24% of the UK market is from British produced meat (BPEX, 2009). The processors, when asked say they do not want to add value to potentially ‘tainted’ boar meat. Processing does not cover up the tainted flavour in bacon.
We have a good quality, good looking product, but when BPEX meets with the supermarkets, the first question was price. Up until our recent devaluation of the pound against the Euro we were commanding a premium price. We play the ‘British’ card, which is very powerful. The second customer reservation was boar taint, which was countered by the ‘improved welfare’ card, which is also very emotive. However, we have still not properly addressed the issue.
The supermarkets sell what people want to purchase. The majority are not normally going to push wheelbarrows up hill, just to help the British pig industry. The knowledgeable pork butchers from Yorkshire and beyond are only interested in buying fresh pork from gilts for their shops. Ask any of the ‘Ladies in Pigs’ or a farmer’s wife, if they have a pig killed, do they insist on it being a gilt? The answer is invariably – YES. So why is it considered acceptable to market boar meat to the general British public?
At a recent survey of attendees at our last PVS meeting, 70% of the respondents claimed they could detect boar taint; 68% agreed with the statement ‘Boar taint has a negative impact on sales of pork and bacon’ and only 8% disagreed; 57% agreed that ‘Incidence of boar taint places British product at a disadvantage compared to imported product’ and 16% disagreed; 48% disagreed with the statement that ‘The British industry does not need to take action to address boar taint’ and 37% agreed.
Have the British consumers already voted with their feet – or shopping baskets? Statistically, we have the lowest consumption of pork in Europe in 2002 (Eurostat, 2006) (see Figure 1) at 16kg/head. If the imported pork from taint-free countries, like Denmark and Holland is subtracted from the total then the figure falls to only 9kg of UK pork/head. Our pork consumption is higher now at 20kg/head but our consumption of UK pork is lower at only 46% (BPEX, 2009) still only 9kg. We have to ask ourselves is this really good and successful marketing?
Figure 1. Pork consumption data in EU: 15 (kg/head) for 2002
(Source: Eurostat, 2006)
We won’t go back to castration. The whole welfare view of castrating piglets in Europe is rapidly changing with the requirement to anaesthetise or offer pain relief as part of the process being adopted. We now have the opportunity in the UK to solve our boar-taint problems yet maintain most of the advantages of non-castration, by the use of the new boar-taint vaccine. I am not underestimating the extra labour and costs required to give boars two injections but surely the benefits will make it worthwhile and allow us to build a stronger, sustainable British pig industry for the future.
BPEX (2009) Pig Year Book 2009.
Eurostat (2006) Main stages in the meat food chain in Europe. Statistics in Focus, Agriculture and Fisheries, European Communities, 6/2006.
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