Have you ever bitten in to a pork rib and found that there was an unpleasant, funky aroma that lingered long after your bite? Or perhaps you ate a mouthful of pulled pork only to get a whiffy, stinky smell that reminded you of a boys locker room? Or maybe you chowed down on a piece of bacon only to flare your nostrils when confronted by a barnyard-esque odour?
Then you, my friend, have felt the offensive effect of boar taint. And ain’t nobody got time for that.
Boar taint is caused by two naturally occurring compounds known as androstenone (a pheromone which is responsible for a sweat/urine scent) and skatole (produced in liver and large intestine, responsible for an even less pleasant fecal aroma). These two compounds can accumulate in the fat of male pigs who have not been castrated. When heated up, these compounds become more volatile, so you’re more likely to detect them in cooked pork.
Around 75% of the population are susceptible to boar taint, with varying degrees of sensitivity, and women are more prone than men. I guess it works the same way asparagus pee does – not everyone has it, but most do. And if you do have the sensitivity eating pork can, on occasion, be an unpleasant experience.
Speaking of females, the old trick of specifically requesting a female pig from your butcher won’t actually save you. See, an overactive adrenal gland can trigger production of androstenone even in sows, and skatole can have an effect on either gender. So although taint is only likely to occur in 1-2% of females, picking a she-pig is still not a guarantee.
It’s not absolute that all boars will develop taint, but without some kind of intervention, up to 50% of them are likely to. Even if your odds are 50/50, when you’re raising these animals exclusively for consumption the eating quality is the ultimate consideration, so it’s an issue the industry is very cautious to address.
That barnyard stink can only be one of two things:
In my research I came across some independent producers who claimed that consumers might be confusing boar taint with other taints such as stress during slaughter, improper bleed after slaughter, improper chilling procedures or improper handling. Regrettably for anyone who read and believed those statements, they are complete ‘hogwash’, as confirmed by Dr. John McGlone, a professor of animal science at Texas Tech university. “They’re incorrect”, states Dr. McGlone, “stress at slaughter can cause meat lighten or darken in color, and can reduce water holding capacity which makes it dry when you eat it, but none of those examples could cause any result that would be confused with boar taint”.
If pork smells weird, there are only two possible causes – either you are smelling boar taint, or the meat has started to go bad, and trust me you’ll know the difference. If it’s taint, the smell will only be unpleasant, and if it’s rotten the smell will be nauseating!
And now for some animal science and industry nerdery! Here are the ways boar taint can be dealt with:
Do nothing at all. Many small holders and heritage breeders choose to do nothing to offset the risk of taint, relying on chance, luck and the genetics of their breeding boar. They may prefer not to castrate for humane reasons, or because they are biodynamic and will not use immuno-vaccines. Some of them even take teeny tiny biopsies from the live animal to check for taint (although logically by this stage, if the meat is tainted, that little piggy is a sausage waiting to happen). Anthony Kumnick of Greenvale Farm in Victoria, Australia raises heritage breed pigs (and produces highly-prized acorn fed pork), but disagrees with the idea of doing nothing at all, choosing instead to physically castrate males in his herd. “Heritage pigs grow nearly twice as slow as commercial pigs hence the likelihood of boar taint in the meat is higher. Not castrating is like Russian Roulette – you’re bound to get one that turns up with boar taint and that’s wasteful for your bottom line and more importantly, a waste of the animals life” he says.
Use a weight calculation. In countries like England and Australia, some producers will choose take a gamble. Instead of castrating, they leave the animal intact and slaughter according to weight, the idea being that if the animal is 220lb or less it hasn’t reached puberty. Problem is, research (D’Souza et al., 2011) shows that there’s no real correlation between weight and onset of puberty, so with this imprecise method lots of funky smelling meat still finds it’s way onto grocery store shelves. The American market has an expectation for a minimum size in their pork cuts, and it costs just as much in rearing overheads and labor to raise and process a 300lb animal as it does a 220lb, so for profitability it doesn’t make sense to slaughter young.
Breed it out using genetics. It’s a nice and humane idea, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Though they are doing some work in Europe, it’s an extremely slow process.
Employ physical castration. Here comes the part where many of you will cross your knees while reading… Physical castration is common practice across the pork, lamb and beef industries and is the number one method of boar taint prevention in the United States. It’s somewhat controversial because it’s done without anaesthesia or pain relief, causing some animal groups to consider it inhumane, though other veterinary societies maintain it’s acceptable practice provided the animal is under two weeks of age. But even this method is not foolproof. Dr. McGlone observes that some mammals are Cryptorchid (meaning they have hidden or undescended testicles). “This means that even if outwardly castrated, the animal can still be an intact male internally, and boar taint will occur”, explains Dr. McGlone.
Employ immunological castration. Immuno-castration is an injectable vaccine (called Improvest or Improvac) approved by the FDA, and already used in some countries for over a decade. From the manufacturers website: ‘Improvest is not a hormone or growth promotant. It’s not added to the feed or genetically modified. And, it is not chemical castration”. Currently, this is considered the most effective method for inhibiting taint, and yet is not the most widely used? “Theres a fear that some consumers have about injectables in animals, even if its a vaccine” explains Dr. McGlone, “this biotechnology fear is not valid, true or warranted”. Moreso, that public fear is more significant to producers than animal welfare because after all, if there’s no demand for your product, you’re out of business.
Keep a clean environment. Skatole (you know, the particularly gross one), is directly related to the cleanliness of the environment the animals are raised in. The dirtier the facility, the higher the levels of skatole present in the pork, even potentially overriding the immuno-castration blockers if it gets filthy enough. So keep it clean, y’all.
How this relates back to you and your eating pleasure:
Logically, based on all of the above, your best bet for avoiding the trauma of taint is to purchase pork from producers who castrate (via either method), and your chances improve even more if you request female pork. Realistically, unless you shop at farmers markets, craft butchers or have direct access to your producer, you’re unlikely to be in a position to make that choice.
So to conclude; boar taint isn’t harmful or dangerous, just unpleasant. Chances are you will come across it every once in a while, and if you do detect it, at least now you know what it is!