Biopsy Tool and a Little Bit(e) of a Big Boar
Warning: This is a big topic. You can skim this article to get the basics. For more depth, read the comments with questions and answers. For even more, click through to the linked articles. Take small bites and don’t get overwhelmed.
Get in some new boars and one’s considerations go to an old story…
There was this city fellow driving out in the country who passed a farm where he sees an old man sitting out on the porch with a three legged pig hopping around in the yard. The fellow backs up and pulls into the driveway to investigate.
Getting out he goes up to the farmer and says, “Good morning, sir. I couldn’t help but notice your pig only has three legs. What happened to his other leg? Did he get attacked by coyotes, a gator or fall in a leg trap?”
“And good morning to you young fella” replies the farmer, “no, it wasn’t anything like that. You see this pig is a very fine pig. Once my wife was cooking bacon and she stepped out of the kitchen. The grease caught on fire. No one in the house knew about it but the pig and he saved me, my wife and my three kids.”
“That’s amazing sir, but why does that pig only have three legs?” asked the man.
“Then there was that time the pig saw a big flood coming and we didn’t. The pig ran into the house and dragged us out up on the hill. If it weren’t for that pig we would all be dead.”
“Well, that is quite the miracle but how come that pig only has 3 legs?” the man said rather annoyed at all this dissembling.
“Well,” said the farmer, “with a pig that special… you can’t eat him all at once.”
It’s an amusing story but sometimes you really do want to have your pig and eat it too. This issue comes up with breeder pigs. Especially when bringing in new genetics in to the herd since I don’t want to bring in boar taint.
In the past I did my taste testing post slaughter by eating progressively older boars to test them for taint but that makes it rather hard to then breed the pigs. That method isn’t going to work with the new Berkshire breeder boar Spitz who we aquired this month. I don’t want to slaughter him to taste him nor do I want to take the two years that we did to prove out the genetics in the past by tasting the offspring.
Because the taint chemicals are alcohol and fat soluble milk and liquor are a method that could be tried to remove the smell from tainted meat.
So how to do it? How to have your pig and eat it too? I suggested that I simply take a small bite and see what he tasted like. I got some laughed and comments that Spitz might object to that. But, I had a plan. A man with a plan I am.
“I’m not sure whether to admire you, laugh hysterically, or be horrified. This is pure genius. Also, thanks for the informative article. I didn’t realize there were multiple kinds [of taint].” -K. Kaspar 20170826
With wildlife, biologists routinely take small biopsies. There are special tools made for doing just this. I bought a set and a biopsying I went. Ironically, I got my biopsy tools from a tattoo, body art and piercing store. These are medical, human grade, stainless steel tools so I figured they would work well enough for the boars.
Interesting Taint Factoids:
Boar taint is real but uncommon.
Boars are more economical than barrows.
Most boars don’t have taint at market age.
Only about 10% of boars have taint.
Feeding a high fiber diet reduces taint to about 1% of boars.
Keeping pens clean or raising on pasture reduces boar taint.
Stress may increase taint.
Taint is not found in a most pig breed lines.
Lighter colored pig breeds are less likely to have taint.
Some research suggests Red Duroc has a high incidence of taint.
There is a Pacific Island breed where even females have ‘boar’ taint.
Taint is genetic, that is to say heritable.
Only about 75% of people can smell taint.
Statistically women can smell taint a little more than men
but some women can’t just as some men can’t smell taint.
There are many kinds of taint besides ‘boar’ taint including:
stress taint, blood taint and rot from improper handling of the meat.
True boar taint is caused primarily by two chemicals stored in fat:
Skatole produced in the small intestines and smells like manure3
Androstenone produced in testes & adrenal glands and smells like urine or sweat.3
There are several other less common chemical taints like indole.
Stress at slaughter can cause taint that is often confused with boar taint.
Improper bleed out causes blood taint – often confused with boar taint.
Improper carcass chilling causes taint – ibid.
Confinement raising increases the odds of skatole based taint.
Being around a sow in heat does not cause taint.†
High corn/soy diets increase the odds of taint.
High fiber diets reduce the odds of taint.
Boars grow about 10% faster than barrows and are better at converting feed into meat.3
Barrows (castrated males) grow about 10% faster than gilt pigs.
Gilts (females) tend to have the most fat and slowest growth.
Some countries, many in Europe, will soon ban castration.
Alcohol is a good solvent for skatole – use as hand wash.
Nearly nothing is absolute in the real world.
Take everything with a grain of salt,
Both Spitz, the new Berkshire boar, and Hamlet, the new Tamworth boar, didn’t object to the sampling. They’re pretty big boys and I was only taking a 12 cubic-mm sample from their back fat over their lumbar vertebrae, e.g., loin a.k.a. middle of the lower back. I had been prepping them for this day for well over a week by training them to accept the movements I would do to take the biopsy. To them it probably felt like getting a shot at most. I slapped the biopsy spot as I took the sample and I suspect that distraction was more noticeable than the actual biopsy. Penn & Teller would be proud.
The next step is to detect the taint chemicals. Note that this requires that you be able to smell taint, ideally in at least two of its more common forms: Skatole and Androstenone. Skatole smells like shit and Androstenone smells like a cross between urine and old gym socks. About 25% of people can’t smell it. Heating it helps enhance the scent.
There are multiple types of taint:
- Three types of Boar Taint each caused by a different chemical;
- Stress Taint caused by stressing an animal just before slaughter;
- Blood Taint caused by failure to properly bleed a carcass;
- Chilling Taint caused by failure to properly chill the carcass;
- Handling Taint caused by failure to observer proper sanitization;
and there may be other causes that make meat go bad or have an off odor.
Each of these taints can happen at different points in the process and I’ve heard them all mistakenly blamed on boar taint. Boar Taint is only the first category and only caused by some very specific cases of poor genetics, poor low fiber feed and poor (confinement) management. Every single one of these can be avoided through good genetics, high fiber feeding, extensive (pasture) management, humane slaughter, proper bleed out, sanitary slaughter & cutting, proper chilling and proper handling all the way to the table.
So we took a few very little bits of our new boars, fry them up and pass the bacon around for everyone to try. No need to waste the whole pig when all you want is a tiny bite. The verdict was no boar taint in either of them. Yeah!
And that folks, is why our boars still have all four legs.
An interesting conclusion from one scientific paper on this topic:
Boar taint, an undesirable odour from meat from some entire male pigs, is caused by the naturally occurring compounds androstenone and skatole. The level of boar taint can be minimized by decreasing the concentrations of those compounds in adipose tissue, e.g. via immunocastration, genetic selection, dietary manipulations and improved rearing conditions. Meat processing can probably redu- ce or mask boar taint; however, more studies are needed to investigate possible processing techniques and consumers attitudes towards final pork product. Genetic selection against high boar taint is probably the most attractive alternative, but is not realistic in the near future. At the moment, the best temporary solutions are “humane” castration using anaesthesia and analgesia, or immunocastration. The advantages and disadvantages of alternative methods should be carefully studied before the final decision is made about how to prevent boar taint without the need of stressful and painful surgical castration. It is generally believed that in future, surgical castration of male piglets can be avoided and replaced by practical and ethically acceptable alternatives.
“Cause And Possible Ways To Eliminate Boar Taint In Pork”
Zamaratskaia, tehnologija mesa 50 (2009) 1-2, 43-47
In other words: good genetics, good management and good diet.
For more about boar taint try this search pattern.
An interesting taint factoid is that that most of these types taint can occur with barrows, gilts and sows as well as with boars. Castration isn’t going to help in those cases. There is even a Pacific islands type of pig where the sows have the boar type taint.
Update 20150925: Interestingly, more and more the big industry is starting to recognize that boar taint is something that can be controlled and eliminated through genetics, feed and management as shown in the recent article Reduced Boar Taint in Lightweight and Clean Pigs in Pig Progress Magazine. This is something we’ve been doing for a decade as of 2015 with our pastured pigs. It is good to see the big boys getting on board.
Update 20170416: In Pig Progress magazine there was an article about producing only gilt piglets through sex sorting with a 99% accuracy. It’s a very interesting concept. The only two problems I have with it is that 1) it makes the farmer dependent on the AI source – this isn’t an issue if you are already using just AI; 2) I wouldn’t have the boars to pick through to advance my herd genetics – I figure that I keep 0.5% of males to test breed and if 99% of them have already been removed from the gene pool by sex sorting of the sperm it would make it very hard to improve herd genetics through selective breeding. While it isn’t something I’ll use it could be beneficial for farms that don’t keep boars as it would dramatically reduce the incidences of castration.
Update 20180127: Walter appeared on NPR’s Market Place show Uncertain Hour as an ‘expert’ on boar taint. Another Warhol moment…
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†There is a myth that a boar being around females in heat will cause taint in the males’s meat. This is false. Around the sows in heat the boars are broadcasting pheromones from their saliva which you may smell but that doesn’t go into the boars meat. Research on flavor development shows that it takes a minimum of two weeks, really more like a month for flavor to go into meat (actually the fat – intermuscular, back fat, etc).
Note: Standard Disclaimer Applies You’re responsible for what you do, be careful around big animals and of doing what some fool (me) on the internet does. We’re “professionals” so beware of trying this at home, or work as Jamie and Adam might say. Seriously though, train your boars before your bore them.
Little Piggy, Penn State Univerisity, May 2001
An End to Boar Taint Genetics, Pork Magazine, January 17th, 2011
Biochemical, nutritional and genetic effects on boar taint in entire male pigs. Animal / Volume 3 / Issue 11 / November 2009, pp 1508-1521, G. Zamaratskaia and E. J. Squires. Abstract: Pork odour is to a great extent affected by the presence of malodorous compounds, mainly androstenone and skatole. The present review outlines the current state of knowledge about factors involved in the regulation of androstenone and skatole in entire male pigs. Androstenone is a pheromonal steroid synthesised in the testes and metabolised in the liver. Part of androstenone accumulates in adipose tissue causing a urine-like odour. Skatole is produced in the large intestine by bacterial degradation of tryptophan and metabolised by hepatic cytochrome P450 enzymes and sulphotransferase. The un-metabolised part accumulates in adipose tissue, causing faecal-like odour. Androstenone levels are mostly determined by genetic factors and stage of puberty, whereas skatole levels in addition to genetic background and hormonal status of the pigs are also controlled by nutritional and environmental factors. To reduce the risk of tainted carcasses entering the market, male pigs are surgically castrated in many countries. However, entire males compared to castrates have superior production characteristics: higher growth rate, better feed efficiency and leaner carcasses. Additionally, animal welfare aspects are currently of particular importance in light of increasing consumers’ concerns. Nutrition, hormonal status, genetic influence on boar taint compounds and the methods to develop genetic markers are discussed. Boar taint due to high levels of skatole and androstenone is moderately heritable and not all market weight entire males have boar taint; it should thus be possible to select for pigs that do not have boar taint. In these studies, it is critical to assess the steroidogenic potential of the pigs in order to separate late-maturing pigs from those with a low genetic potential for boar taint. A number of candidate genes for boar taint have been identified and work is continuing to develop genetic markers for low boar taint. More research is needed to clarify the factors involved in the development of boar taint and to develop additional methods to prevent the accumulation of high concentrations of skatole and androstenone in fat. This review proposes those areas requiring further research.