Supermarkets in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom sell meat from uncastrated pigs (boars). In other European countries, supermarkets and meat processing companies are still reticent about purchasing this meat. Not everyone is convinced that the risk of boar taint can be managed using good quality control. However, a preventative detection method has been developed and is proving its worth in practice: the human nose.
Dr C.P.A. (Coen) van Wagenberg, a researcher at LEI Wageningen University and Research Centre, has developed a detection method for tracing pigs that suffer from boar taint. Research has revealed that, on average, four percent of uncastrated pigs exude the smell. The method developed should prevent this meat reaching consumers. Another requirement is that detecting meat with boar taint should be practical for slaughterhouses. To this end, Van Wagenberg cooperated closely and successfully with the industry. The human nose method has already proven effective in practice.
The principle behind the human nose method is simple. Boar taint resides in fat and becomes apparent after heating. The neck fat of every boar on the slaughter line is therefore heated using a gas burner and smelled to see whether boar taint develops. Some 1.5 million pigs have already been tested using this method. All the data acquired using the human nose method is collected and analysed. Van Wagenberg: “The most important thing is that the system has to be reliable. Only then will confidence in the system increase. Furthermore, we would like to use the data to be able to provide good feedback to pig farmers. Using this information we may be able to give the latter information that will stimulate them to already start implementing measures aimed at preventing boar taint.”
The data collected on the 1.5 million pigs in the Netherlands using the human nose method is in line with prior research data. Approximately 4% of boars suffer from boar taint. This percentage was also borne out by experiences in Germany. It has also been demonstrated that major differences can exist between boars from different farms. “We hope to be able to discover the reason behind these raised frequencies by analysing this data and feeding this back to the pig farms concerned.” According to Van Wagenberg it is already clear that genetics and feed can, in any case, be major influences.
In order to determine when a smell should be earmarked as boar taint, researchers took the perceptions and experiences of consumers as their point of departure. “Consumers are the gold standard,” so says Van Wagenberg. “A detection method should be able to identify those boars the meat of which consumers think smells unacceptable.” Slaughterhouse staff who carry out detection are trained to recognise these boars. The staff’s results are recorded and continuously analysed. According to Van Wagenberg this is necessary in order to immediately zoom in on any possible deviations. “If the slaughterhouse quickly becomes aware of a member of staff generating deviant results, it can act immediately to reduce the risk of meat with boar taint reaching consumers. For example, by making the member of staff re-take the training course.”
Alternatives in Europe
Good detection methods are also being sought in other European countries. Automating the checking process is being studied for instance. However, so far no alternative is available because no technology has yet been developed that represents consumer perception. France and Spain are conducting pilots with the human nose. The latter has already been incorporated into the protocol of the German QS quality system. Talks are underway with sector parties concerning its introduction into the Dutch IKB system. European research has shown that stopping castration in the EU is an irreversible process. In any case, boar taint can be managed using the careful implementation of the detection method. Van Wagenberg: “Supermarkets and the meat processing industry quite understandably want good quality meat. The human nose has proven reliable. This will, ultimately, make buyers confident that quality is safeguarded.”