Food standards agency rejects Improvac drug, fearing public outcry in wake of tainted pork scandal in Ireland
Meat from pigs that have been “chemically castrated” could soon be on sale in Britain, with no label to warn shoppers that it contains a controversial drug.
An injection to prevent puberty in male pigs was licensed for use in Britain and most of Europe last year, and has gone on sale to farmers who produce pork.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer developed the drug, Improvac, to allow farmers to grow pigs bigger before slaughter but without them releasing the hormones that cause boar taint, a taste many consumers dislike. In much of Europe, young males are physically castrated, but in the UK the practice is rarely carried out.
Improvac has so far been rejected by the Assured Food Standards (AFS) agency, which licenses its Red Tractor symbol to 90% of British pig producers. But it could be used by the remaining farmers, and by overseas producers who account for one third of pork eaten in the UK. Pfizer said it was currently “being used by a small number of pig farmers in the UK”. Meat produced using the drug does not have to be labelled as such.
Pfizer says the treatment was approved only after “rigorous” testing to ensure it could not affect consumers through the pig meat or the environment. The RSPCA said farmers in its Freedom Foods scheme could use Improvac from later this month if they convinced managers that it would help animal welfare, for example by reducing aggression between boars.
But the AFS, the country’s biggest farm certification scheme, has rejected it, fearing a public backlash. David Clarke, AFS chief executive, said: “We’re not saying we have concerns technically [but] we’d want more market intelligence before making a change.”
Public sensitivity to chemical castration is likely to be high after the 2008 scandal in Ireland, when pork products were contaminated by PCBs – dangerous, man-made chemicals. Animal feed was blamed.
Tim Waygood, whose farm in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, advertises “high-welfare, ecological” food, said he objected to pigs being injected so their “balls shrivel up”, and wanted more reassurance about safety for consumers and the wider environment.
Consumers should be better informed about such changes to their food, added Waygood. “[Farmers] are going to make an extra pound a pig because they are going to castrate their pigs chemically. It would be nice to compete against that when the consumers are informed.”
There are also concerns about safety for farm workers who might accidentally inject themselves, and will have to handle bigger animals, said the British Veterinary Association.
Improvac, which has been used in Australia for a decade and is now approved in 53 countries, is marketed as a “vaccine… for the reduction of boar taint” and an alternative to physical castration of pigs. It works by injecting pigs twice with a synthetic product that causes the testes to shrink. The effect is said to be temporary, but the boars are slaughtered four to six weeks later, before it wears off.
Pfizer said it disagreed with the description “chemical castration”, but critics argue that – as with use of the term for human sex offenders – the effect is the same. A spokesman said: “The European commission’s licensing authorities, including a panel of international scientific experts, assessed Improvac’s environmental safety, consumer safety and the product’s safety and efficacy when used in pigs. The safety assessment of Improvac was every bit as rigorous as a human medicine assessment.”
Barney Kay, general manager of the UK’s National Pig Association, said the association wanted more research into consumer attitudes, but noted that farmers in a low-margin business could not afford to ignore the vaccine.
Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association organic movement, said that its primary concern was the impact on the animals. “It’s better than physical castration without anaesthetic, but it’s still a gross interference with the animal’s natural development,” he said.