THE pork chain came together last month to learn about and discuss an immunological alternative to the physical castration of pigs to control boar taint.
Veterinarians, producers, nutritionists, meat scientists, packers, thought leaders, meat processors, food retailers, foodservice representatives, associations inside and outside the pork chain, government officials and trade media gathered in Miami, Fla., to openly talk about all aspects of a new product being rolled out in the U.S. by Pfizer Animal Health.
In opening, Gloria Basse, group director of Pfizer's Swine Business Unit, said Improvest represents a better way forward and most likely a paradigm change for the pork industry. It provides solutions, she emphasized.
Pork from some male pigs can have an offensive smell when cooked. While these naturally developing odors are completely safe, people, particularly women, can easily detect the odors, making it a necessity to control the odors to ensure a quality pork eating experience.
Improvest is a protein compound that works like an immunization to temporarily protect against these off-odors.
The product is approved by the Food & Drug Administration for use in the U.S. and by regulatory agencies in 60 other countries, including the European Union, Australia and Japan. It has been used successfully by farmers in some countries for more than 10 years, Basse noted.
The product is given as two subcutaneous injections into the post-auricular region of the neck of intact male pigs. The first 2 mL dose should be administered no earlier than nine weeks of age. The second dose should be given at least four weeks after the first dose.
Pigs should be slaughtered no earlier than three weeks but no later than 10 weeks after the second dose in order to allow the natural substances (androstenone and skatole) that cause the unpleasant aromas to clear the pig's system.
No hormonal or chemical activity is involved. Rather, the pig's own immune system works to temporarily provide the same effect as physical castration without creating the odors; essentially, the pig's testicular function is suppressed.
Extensive testing has shown that consumers could not differentiate between pork from pigs given the product and pork from physically castrated pigs.
Although U.S. consumers likely don't know about boar taint and don't know that pigs are physically castrated or why they are castrated, that doesn't mean the industry shouldn't be looking at whether there is a better way, according to Dr. John McGlone of Texas Tech University.
A Pfizer Animal Health polling of 6,000 consumers found that, upon learning about the options, 71-82% of consumers preferred an alternative to physical castration of pigs. More than half said they were willing to pay more for pork products if such a method was used, and 18% of consumers said they were even willing to pay 10% more.
Pfizer has set up four websites aimed at educating and communicating with various market sectors as well as consumers. The company also is extensively monitoring social media to keep the discussion fact based.
McGlone said research shows that intact male pigs that are immunologically castrated are subjected to less stress and have a reduced risk of infection and possible death. Mortality rates in treated pigs have been shown to decrease 1.6%, he said.
Shelly Stanford of Pfizer provided research data showing how male pigs given the product later in the finishing phase grew to their full natural potential, with all of the inherent advantages, until the second dose.
The advantages documented in studies included a 6-10% improvement in feed efficiency, a 4.2% improvement in average daily gain and a 2.0-2.5% increase in cutout yield. A full economic assessment is forthcoming.
In addition, treated pigs tend to be less aggressive than intact males and behave similarly to those that are physically castrated.
To determine the benefits of the product to the entire chain, Pfizer sponsored the first-ever ISO-compliant global life-cycle assessment for an animal health product that measured the environmental impact of allowing pigs to grow longer as intact males. The assessment concluded that this approach has the potential to reduce the industry's carbon footprint by as much as 3.7% versus physical castration, according to Garth Boyd of The Prasino Group.
"Treated boars grow faster than physically castrated boars, so it is solely a function of reduced feed consumption and improved feed efficiency," Boyd said.
Basse added, "This year, we suffered through one of the most significant droughts in history. The constant pressure to make sure that we conduct business with animal welfare in mind continues to grow. As we become more aware of our responsibility to environmental sustainability, we're forced to re-examine our practices. Adopting Improvest will help us meet these challenges head on and continue to be successful."
The rollout of Improvest in the U.S. is intentionally being done gradually in order to give packers and processors time to integrate it into and optimize their systems. Product availability will increase as experience working with intact males expands, Basse said.