Debate on piglet castration

In Germany there are about 40,000 farms that keep pigs. The majority of them are family-owned businesses. About 35 percent of them keep fewer than 50 animals. The majority of piglets in Germany are surgically castrated. The reason for this is that the meat of male pigs can develop a very unpleasant smell and is considered hard or impossible to sell.

Previously, piglets younger than eight days old were castrated without anaesthesia. The Animal Welfare Act was amended in 2013, prohibiting piglet castration without anaesthesia. Originally, the prohibition was meant to come into effect on 1 January 2019.

The German Animal Welfare Act is one of the most ambitious laws regarding piglet castration in the EU. Firstly, German law, unlike the legislation in many other Member States, provides for a prohibition of piglet castration without anaesthesia; secondly, anaesthesia is defined in Germany as effective pain elimination. In contrast, comparable regulations in other Member States consider pain relief as sufficient.

Amendment of animal welfare legislation by parliamentary groups supporting the government

In autumn 2018, parliamentary groups supporting the government endorsed an extension to the transitional phase before the prohibition of piglet castration without anaesthesia finally came into force. The debate on the extension reflects the conflict of interests between the goals of high animal welfare standards on the one hand and farm practice on the other. Federal Minister Julia Klöckner made it clear that it was her goal to achieve more animal welfare in pig farming. She went on to say that at the same time, it was necessary to refrain from making further structural changes to sow husbandry.
Most recently, in 2012/2013, a tightening of animal welfare standards, which required major stall conversions, led a large number of smaller sow holdings to close their farms.
According to Klöckner, the ban poses major economic challenges, particularly for small and medium-sized companies. She said that the extension was a compromise in order to enable piglet production in Germany to continue in the future and to not lead to an exodus of piglet production abroad, where lower animal welfare requirements apply in respect of piglet castration.

Alternatives under discussion

Until the ban on piglet castration without anaesthesia comes into force on 1 January 2021, the time must be used to finish converting the farms. For pig farmers, there are currently three alternatives to anaesthetic-free piglet castration:

  • surgical castration under anaesthesia. In this procedure, the animal is put under general anaesthesia using an injection or inhalation anaesthesia. Up until the beginning of 2020, general anaesthesia was only allowed to be performed by a veterinarian. The BMEL therefore  introduced an ordinancethat allows competent persons to carry out isoflurane (inhalation) anaesthesia.
  • Boar fattening: This procedures requires no surgical castration of the animal. Boar fattening places higher requirements on husbandry management. On the other hand, young boars have a better feed conversion ratio and show higher meat percentages. Boar fattening involves the risk that the meat could develop a so-called boar taint, which is why quality control needs to take place at the slaughterhouse.
  • Immunocastration: In this procedure, the male fattening pig is treated twice with an injection that causes a temporary suppression of the testicular function. This prevent the boar taint.
    Aside from the additional expenses, the logistical effort of this procedure is criticised.

The ban of piglet castration without anaesthesia was adopted in 2013. The aim of the extension of the deadline was to improve the practicability of the existing alternative to piglet castration without anaesthesia. The implementation of the ban proved to be more complex than expected in 2013 because of the existing heterogeneous structures. The extension of the deadline is a compromise between the animal welfare goals and the economic interests of the sector.

Therefore the BMEL advocates further developing the alternatives to piglet castration without anaesthesia, specifically with regard to their practicability. This requires focused cooperation between all stages of the production chain.

In light of this, Federal Minister Julia Klöckner invited members of the German Bundestag from the CDU/CSU and SPD parties, representatives of the agricultural sector, the meat industry and the retail food trade, veterinarians and members of the academic community to participate in a round table discussion at the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Berlin. She praised the constructive exchange after the talks: “It became clear that major industry representatives from all stages along the food chain support legal alternatives to piglet castration without anaesthesia.” Additionally, some industry representatives are conducting specific work on immunocastration. A project involving 100 000 immunocastrated young boars is intended to gather experience regarding immunocastrated young boars in respect of meat processing.

 

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