The issues of “pig castration” and “boar taint” may have caught your attention in the media recently. For many years, pork producers have physically castrated male piglets to prevent pigs’ natural odors, referred to as “boar taint,” from developing as they mature. Without some form of prevention or control, the pig’s off-odors collect in its meat and are released during the cooking process. When this happens, people often have the impression that the meat has “gone bad” or is not safe to eat, which is not the case. Off-odors do not pose a food safety issue; however, they can affect the consumers’ expectation of the quality of the pork they purchase and consume.
In March 2011, FDA approved a new alternative to the current castration practice that allows pig farmers to immunize pigs to temporarily prevent these odors from forming. This new method has several benefits in addition to maintaining the quality of your eating experience.
This Q&A addresses questions about this alternative method which, while relatively new to the U.S., has been used in some parts of the world for more than a decade.
What is boar taint and where is it found?
Boar taint is an unpleasant aroma that can sometimes occur in cooked pork that has come from male pigs that were not castrated prior to entering the food supply. While unappealing, the odor does not imply a safety concern with the meat. Most consumers have never encountered boar taint in the U.S. and most other parts of the world because pigs are physically castrated in the first weeks following birth, well before entering the food supply. As a result, the odor is not detectable.
Is there an alternative to physical castration that would still assure pork quality?
Yes. FDA has recently approved an immunization product that temporarily prevents the unpleasant odors in pork from developing. When used, the physical castration of piglets is not necessary.
What are the benefits of using an immunization approach vs. physical castration?
There are several benefits to this practice. Even with safe procedures, physical castration comes with a risk of infection, or even death. On average, a farmer loses one to two pigs for every hundred that are castrated. (Allison, et al., 2010) This alternative immunization practice also removes the stress and pain of a procedure and the associated recovery time the animal would have to experience.
In addition, studies have found that pigs that are not physically castrated convert feed into meat more efficiently. As a result, they use fewer natural resources and produce less manure and more lean meat (two to five pounds more lean pork) per pig. (MacKinnon and Pearce, 2007; Boler, et al., 2010)
Third, as the world population grows, we will require more food, including more sources of protein. New food production practices such as this one that can increase the quality and proportion of lean meat available to consumers will be an important part of meeting this demand.
Is this alternative practice approved in other countries?
Yes. Sixty-two countries around the world have approved immunization-based approaches as safe and effective methods for preventing boar taint in pork, including the U.S., Japan, and the European Union. In addition, it has been used in Australia and New Zealand for more than ten years.
Is pork from pigs that have been given the immunization safe?
Yes. The FDA and other regulatory bodies around the world confirm that meat from these animals is safe. Studies show that the immunization is recognized naturally by the pig’s immune system, leaving no residues in pork meat that would have any impact on human health. The immunization is not a hormone or an antibiotic, but a protein compound made up of elements that pigs produce naturally.
(Clarke, et al., 2008; FDA Freedom of Information Summary, NADA 141-322.)
What do medical and veterinary experts say about this immunization approach?
A panel of medical experts, including pediatricians and allergists, reviewed the research on the immunization and said:
“The panel agrees with the FDA’s conclusion that pork from pigs receiving <the immunization> is safe for human consumption.”
And after reviewing the science behind a vaccination with the same active ingredient as the one sold in this country, a committee from the European Medicines Agency said:
“As a method of boar taint control, vaccination with <this product> offers a viable well-proven alternative to surgical castration; one that has already been adopted in several major pig producing countries in the world and, contrary to the practice of surgical castration, involves minimal pain and risk to the vaccinated pig…With regard to consumer safety…the consumption of meat from vaccinated animals…is not considered to be harmful.”
- Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use, European Medicines Agency, 2010 http://www.ema.europa.eu/docs/en_GB/document_library/EPAR_-_Scientific_Discussion/veterinary/000136/WC500064057.pdf
What does this mean for you?
It shouldn’t change anything in terms of what you observe at the meat counter, at restaurants, or in your home, as pork from these animals will look, taste and smell the same as the high-quality pork you enjoy today. In addition, it is possible for pork to be produced with fewer resources and less waste, as well as provide animal welfare benefits. With widespread global approval, consumers can continue to feel confident in the safety and quality of pork products available in the marketplace today.
Animal Agriculture Resources:
“Understanding Our Food” Communications Tool Kit: http://www.foodinsight.org/understandingourfood.aspx
“From Farm to Fork: Questions and Answers About Modern Food Production”: http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=FROM_FARM_TO_FORK_QUESTIONS_AND_ANSWERS_ABOUT_MODERN_FOOD_PRODUCTION%201
Alliance to Feed the Future website: