Up until the end of 2020, it was not only permitted but also common in Germany to cut out the testes of male piglets without any anesthesia. In 2013, the federal government decided to put an end to this cruel practice by January 1, 2019. But since the preferred alternative was not ready to be put into practice nationwide on time, the ban was postponed for another two years – which was met with vigorous protests from animal rights activists and veterinarians.
Seven years after the ban was first decided on, it was finally put into practice: It now has to be guaranteed during the castration procedure that the animal does not feel any pain. The animal owner can choose from the following alternative methods to castration without anesthesia:
Usually, animals get injected with anesthetics to sedate them prior to surgical procedures. In addition, pain killers help numb the pain. This method, however, is viewed as impracticable for factory farmed animals because every injection needs to be administered and monitored by a veterinarian. Also, the recovery phase from the anesthetic is comparatively long.
A simpler way to sedate the piglets is by using the gas isoflurane. It has only been approved to be used for this purpose in 2018. The animals not only fall asleep quickly but also recover quickly. As with the injectable anesthetics, the animals have to be administered an additional pain killer because isoflurane simply sedates them. Catching and placing them into an upside down position to administer the gas through a respiratory mask, however, causes stress for the piglets. The surgical procedure also leaves behind a wound that has the potential to get infected.
To further accommodate the agricultural industry, the German government passed a regulation that allows for animal owners to administer isoflurane themselves after a brief training. This means that laypersons are performing complex medical procedures, which we and many veterinarians are very critical of. This not only poses a risk for mistakes to be made but also a health risk for humans. Additionally, isoflurane has a negative impact on the climate if it escapes into the atmosphere after being administered improperly.
Even though this is the preferred method of farmers, only two thirds of the available subsidies to support the implementation of isoflurane as an anesthetic were retrieved by the end of 2020. Due to Covid-19, it was also not possible to train as many farmers as originally planned.
Raising entire male pigs
Raising male pigs without castration is the only alternative that does not require any type of procedure compromising the physical integrity of the animals. This is the prevailing solution in Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal. In Germany, 20% of male pigs in factory farms were not castrated as of June 2020. Since entire male pigs are more active and also more aggressive towards other pigs, they need more space and materials to keep them busy so as not to stress or hurt each other.
The meat of these animals can have an unpleasent odor due to male sex hormones. This, however, only affects 1.4 to 5% of male pigs and can be regulated through husbandry conditions and feed. One third of people cannot detect the odor, while one third is highly sensitive to it. Many farmers are therefore reluctant to raise entire male pigs, also because of the modification of stables this would require. In other countries, the animals are slaughtered before they can develop so-called boar taint.
The vaccination of piglets with Improvac constitutes a compromise. It is injected twice by the animal owner and subdues sexual maturity. We, as well as the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health), believe that immunocastration is the best method from an animal welfare standpoint. This method entails only a small procedure and reduces the stress level of the animals as opposed to the raising of entire male pigs.
Immunocastration is already permitted in 60 countries. In Germany, however, only 1% of male pigs was immunocastrated as of June 2020. The slaughtering and retail sectors apparently do not like taking these animals. In the organic farming sector, the use of Improvac is currently not even permitted – this sends a disastrous signal. Concerns are oftentimes unjustified and there is no evidence that consumers would reject meat from immunocastrated male pigs.
In Australia, Brazil and Columbia, immunocastration is the prevailing method. In Europe, Belgium is demonstrating how it could be done: there, many large retail chains only accept pig meat from animals that were not surgically castrated. The share of immunocastrated animals in Belgium is 20% by now.
Not permitted: Local anesthesia
Some farmers are hoping that they will be able to castrate their animals themselves by simply using local anesthesia as is the case in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This is not permitted in Germany, however, because with this method, pain cannot be fully eliminated. In addition, the injection into the spermatic cord is already painful and the animals have to be pinned down while conscious, causing them stress.
In conclusion: The process is moving along slowly but surely
The fact that the castration of piglets without anesthesia is now prohibited in Germany and that animals are not permitted to feel any pain during the procedure, is a huge success for the protection of animals. For pigs being used for food production this means one less extremely painful and traumatizing event in their lives. As usual, the political apparatus, farmers and the retail sector are struggling with the transition process despite the frequently asserted interest in »animal welfare«.
Until our preferred alternative immunocastration is implemented on a large scale, a lot more persuasion of farmers, the slaughtering sector and the retail sector will need to take place. We are still hopeful that – as long as pigs are still considered to be »livestock« – this method will prevail over surgical methods in the long run. It would be our fondest hope that this transition will bring further positive developments for the animals, such as generally improved husbandry conditions due to the raising of more entire male pigs.
However, we deem it ethically highly questionable to turn male pigs into some type of hermaphrodites by genetically modifying them just to avoid boar taint. This approach unfortunately follows the popular motto of adapting animals to husbandry conditions instead of improving these conditions to make them more suitable for animals.
Federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner announced in a press release at the end of 2020 that farmers would receive support during the transition process, that she would speak with representatives of the slaughtering and processing sector as well as the retail sector, and that she would inform consumers. What is currently happening with male pigs that have been castrated and if all farms have switched to alternatives in time before the end of the deadline, we unfortunately do not know.
Anyone seeking to banish the suffering of animals from his or her plate once and for all, is doing so best by choosing a vegan diet anyway.