I think, sometimes, when consumers first hear about hurdles that face the agriculture industry they tend to think there’s nothing being done to address those hurdles. Rather than viewing how things are done now as a snapshot, a moment in time in a rapidly evolving industry that just so happens to feed the world, they see it as a concrete standard operating procedure, the way things are, the way they’ve been, and the way they’re going to be. Because the tomato always looks the same when it arrives on their plate, it can be difficult to imagine how vastly the processes behind getting them there has changed over the years.
The truth, of course, is that innovation is always happening behind the scenes — farmers and ag professionals are already aware of and working towards solutions to the hurdles that we face before they ever become newspaper headlines and evening news hooks — but because that innovation can take time, we’re not always ready to implement a new tool or technique immediately after an issue becomes front page news. And trust me, that’s often far more frustrating to us than you might imagine. In an ideal world, we’d all have solutions to the problems that plague us in our work immediately, in the real world patience has become a virtue by necessity.
Which brings me to Improvest and pig testicles. Because I’m all about the classy segways.
I’ve written about castration before, so I won’t bore you with the long, drawn out explanations here — though if you’ve not read it before, I would highly recommend you click that link before continuing — but I will give you a quick recap before we go on:
Why Pigs Are Castrated
- Two compounds routinely produced by mature male pigs, androstenone and skatole, can impart an off scent and flavor to their meat. This is commonly referred to as “Boar Taint”.
- Mature male pigs can be bothersome to their pen and pasture mates, creating a stressful environment.
- Mature male pigs can be dangerous to one another and their pen and pasture mates.
- Mature male pigs can be dangerous to human handlers.
How Pigs Are Castrated
- Done as early as possible, usually within the first couple weeks of life, the testicles are surgically removed from the scrotum via two small incisions.
So what is Improvest and what does it have to do with any of that, you ask? Improvest is an injectable protein compound that may completely revolutionize the how part of pig castration. Instead of cutting, in as little as a year from now, hog producers may be injecting. The biggest questions that face them now: cost and consumer perception.
Though American consumers have occasionally voiced concern over surgical castration of young male pigs, it’s pretty consistently rated below other welfare concerns such as gestation crates. Meanwhile, they’ve become increasingly wary of any compounds that can be fed or injected. The question over how happily they’ll embrace Improvest remains to be seen, though proactive education certainly has the potential to make any transitions easier.
So What Is Improvest?
- A Protein Compound that temporarily blocks the compounds that taint pork.
- An Immunocological Product that works like a vaccine.
- A subcutaneous injection.
What Improvest is NOT
- A Horomone.
- Genetically Modified
- Permanent, Chemical Castration
- A Growth Promotant.
- An antibiotic.
Approved in sixty other countries (including the European Union, Japan, and Australia) Improvest has been in use in some of those countries for more than a decade. It is an injectable, protein compound that works like a vaccine to activate the pig’s natural immune response and temporarily block the release of the two compounds — androstenone and skatole — that cause boar taint in the pork products of mature male pigs. In fact, it’s method of delivery is the same Diphtheria toxoid vaccine that has been used in the vaccination of human children since the 1930s. And it leaves no residue in meat products.
As a farmer, I’ve been watching the developments of Improvest closely; castration has always been among my least favorite jobs and I’d be delighted to have a less invasive method of accomplishing a necessary task. But I also realize those two Cs, cost and consumer perception, will heavily dictate whether or not Improvest becomes a viable option on our farm.
By the time it’s rolled out to the swine industry here in the U.S. — expected beginning December 2013 — it will have been approved for use by the FDA for over two years. For small farms like ours mid 2014 would probably be a more realistic estimate of availability. Currently, cost of implementation stands between $4 and $5 per pig, which equals as much as thirty times* what it currently costs us to castrate using the surgical technique.
My question to you as consumers: with the information I’ve provided you about Improvest, would you prefer pork from pigs who have been surgically castrated or those who have received Improvest? If you would prefer Improvest pigs, would you be willing to pay a few cents more for your pork to offset costs of implementation?
*It’s possible gains in efficiency will offset this cost increase, but because all research is done on farms who have different infrastructure and different hogs than us we will have to determine that for ourselves in order to be certain.
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