Pork Taint – Tain’t So

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Pig water fountain. Can't leave the hose there, though, as he'll pull it into the pen to play with.

Pig water fountain. Can’t leave the hose there, though, as he’ll pull it into the pen to play with.

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

George Gershwin — Porgy and Bess

I’ve spoken before in my writings of how often what I was taught or told was fact later turned out to be anywhere from slightly distorted to flat-out wrong. I recently had a conversation with my 80-year-old butcher about whether we should use our boar for human consumption. His immediate response was “No, I wouldn’t – the meat won’t be any good even for sausage.” Enter my husband, whose family raised large numbers of pigs in the days before confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Hubby said he’d often eaten meat from boars used for breeding, and reminded me of the wild pig he had shot some years before that was clearly sexually mature and active – the meat tasted fine.

Three little pigs in a row and one outlier.

Three little pigs in a row and one outlier.

I must preface my remaining comments by pointing out that castrating male animals is the norm for many producers. Among the reasons given: decreases aggressiveness, they gain weight better, prevents unintended pregnancy and inbreeding, improves the quality of the meat. Our boar is four years old and has been used for limited breeding. His pen is across an alley from the sow’s, and we turn her in with him when we want her bred. Unfortunately, he has gotten so big that he’s no longer capable of breeding. At 600+ pounds, that’s a lot of meat that could potentially be going to waste.  Never having been one to blindly accept official dictates on any subject, I started digging for information on boar taint – meat that has a distinct off taste, attributed to boars that have been butchered after they have been used for breeding.

Among my findings:

  • Boar taint is caused by androstenone and skatole, naturally-occurring substances found in the fat of pigs. They are not deposited until the pig reaches sexual maturity, and skatole, which is produced in the intestines as a result of pigs inhaling or eating feces in confinement, can also taint the meat of female pigs.
  • Pigs fed primarily corn (corn and soybeans are the common diet in CAFOs) have an increased risk of boar taint, while pigs raised on pasture, milk products — especially whey – hay and other foods have a lower risk.
  • A quarter of consumers are unable to detect boar taint even when it is present and 80 percent of boars don’t have boar taint in the first place, no matter how old. Women are more likely to be able to detect boar taint than men.
  • Pigs of the Duroc breed seem to be more likely to display boar taint, while others — such as Yorkshires — are less likely to do so.
  • Aggressive, highly dominant boars seem more likely to show boar taint.
  • Boars — as opposed to barrows, which are castrated males — tend to put on muscle rather than fat and to grow proportionally longer, which means more bacon per hog.
Baby pigs are just plain cute.

Baby pigs are just plain cute.

So. We have an older boar, used for breeding, that is half Duroc and half Yorkshire. This boar has never shown signs of aggressiveness, even when we’ve been in his pen, and delights in being scratched around the ears and on his back. He’s been fed corn screenings, alfalfa hay, garden gleanings, leftover people food and plenty of milk products since he was eight weeks old. He’s not on concrete, although he has been kept in a fairly large pen. We have never castrated the younger boars we raise for meat — all of which were sired by this boar — and have never had problems with boar taint. I figure my odds are at least 50 percent, and probably better, that we can eat this big guy without worrying about tainted meat. I’ll let you know…

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