It stinks of boar
Panel leader Inger-Johanne Fjøsne screws up her face completely. "Aaaaaaww; that just smells of urine to me," she says and turns away from the glass researcher Asgeir Nikolai Nilsen is holding up to her nose. "There you are," says Nilsen to me. "I think it smells good, like perfume almost."
Me? When I took a sniff I thought "hmm…strong. Disinfectant?"
Animal welfare = a smell problem
From 2009 it may become illegal to castrate pigs in Norway. But better animal welfare means this popular meat could start smelling of boar. So there is a lot of research going on into this smell that consumer testers associate with some very varied odours. Animalia is responsible for testing various boar meat products on consumers and they are using Nofima Mat’s test panels for some of the tests.
"That’s what makes this research so much fun – but also so difficult. Some people don’t notice the smell at all – others react pretty violently. And the reactions are very different," explains project manager Asgeir Nikolai Nilsen of Nofima Mat.
What is the smell of boar?
The smell comes from two substances called skatole and androstenone. Skatole is well defined among sensory researchers and is what we associate with the smell in a pigsty. Androstenone is more subtle. 60 per cent of Norwegian consumers cannot notice this smell at all. The remaining 40 can be divided into two categories: Those who think it has a strong, unpleasant smell and those who think the smell is unbearable and reminiscent of sweat, urine or even worse.
Only one man in four notices the smell, probably because they secrete the smell of androstenone themselves, often through sweat. Androstenone is also the pheromone that gets the sow to stand still during mating.
The boar test
400 consumers in Oslo and the Follo area took part in the trials. The androstenone test method is for a test person to smell the contents of three small bottles. One of them contains pure androstenone, the other two just water. For a test person to be categorised as sensitive, he or she must choose the right bottle twice, as well as stating (on a questionnaire) that the smell is perceived as being strong. The sensitive test persons have been recruited for new studies in which, instead of smelling pure androstenone, they taste meat products that have a smell of boar. Androstenone is soluble in fat, so its level depends on the amount of fat in the meat. The smaller the amount of fat, the less androstenone. What the researchers are looking for is the consumer’s "acceptance level" for boar taint.
Four trained tasting panels in Europe have also been testing various pork products. All the samples are prepared at Nofima Mat at Ås and then sent to Spain, England and Denmark and made ready for sensory panels. "The idea is that they all judge samples containing the same levels of androstenone and skatole. This is called a ring trial. We want to clarify whether we really can divide consumers into three groups, as we currently believe," explains Asgeir Nikolai Nilsen.
The research project has been going on for 3-4 years. "We have gained a great deal of new knowledge in the last year. About genetic testing for example, which we hope to carry further in a later project. It appears to be very probable that the ability to recognise the smell of boar is genetically coded," explains the project manager.
The researchers have also learned a great deal about sensitivity in relation to the chosen smell. This has even led to new routines for testing and appointing new sensory assessors at Nofima Mat.
"We used to just test whether they recognised the smell or not. We want to have sensory assessors who are as sensitive as possible," explains Nilsen. "This group represents about 20 per cent of the population. They would probably maintain that uncastrated boar is inedible and demand their money back if they bought it."
Since pork is the most frequently bought meat both in Norway and in the EU, the castration issue is about a great deal of money for the meat producers. The Research Council of Norway has therefore financed a number of ongoing projects concerning boar taint, including the consumer study into androstenone. Nofima Mat has carried out the consumer tests on behalf of Animalia, which is responsible for coordinating all the projects. As well as carrying out consumer tests, Nofima Mat is also working on methods for disclosing boar taint electronically.
At the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), which is also heavily involved in the research project, they have made financial estimates to show how much a ban on castration would actually cost. At the moment, only Norway wants to introduce a ban. But animal protection considerations are making it more and more likely in other European countries.