On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat

Two years ago we traveled to France and Italy to learn more about how they raise pigs and produce charcuterie and salumi. Disappointed to discover that the pigs are virtually all raised in sheds, we stopped calling our air-dried hams ‘prosciutto’ and changed to ‘jamón’ as we understood at the time that Spanish pigs with the appellation ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ are raised outdoors and finished over autumn and winter on acorns – a beautiful system.

This year we visited Spain to see this beautiful system firsthand. There is a lot of jamón eaten in Spain, and a lot more exported. In 2014, 43.5 million pigs (almost equivalent to the population of Spain, which was 46.7 million in 2014) were slaughtered. (Compare that with 4.85 million pigs produced in Australia for a population of 23.5 million.) So as we drove down through the southwest and up the western half of the country before crossing to Barcelona, we were on the lookout for these millions of pigs. There weren’t many on the paddocks, but the white concrete sheds with their signature malodorous air were ubiquitous.

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As we traveled we were interested in the aesthetics – in the texture, flavour, and colour of jamón across Spain – and we also wanted to know where and under what conditions it was produced. Only then would we ask how the jamóns are cured – what is the salting technique, the drying times, the maturation periods? Although we contacted two farms in hopes of a visit, we received no response from either, perhaps because we arrived before the famous montañera time where (some of) the pigs are actually outdoors?

We found the famous dehesa landscapes where the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are finished on acorns, but most were vacant until the nuts would start to drop at the start of October. In Extremadura and Huelva provinces, some dehesa still sheltered the bulls grazing the last of the dry-standing grass of summer as they awaited their bullfighting fate. The few pigs we saw outdoors were on bare, rocky ground, and according to the FAO only around 10% of Spanish pigs (the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) even get those few months outside under the shade of the picturesque oak forests.

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By the end of our time in Spain I was back to eating mostly vegetarian, and we will no longer be calling our hams jamón.

While the Spanish manage to produce quite a delicious product by finishing the pigs for three to four months on acorns, those pigs spend the first year of their lives in sheds, and the sows live and farrow entirely indoors. (NB I understand that there are a very small number of farms raising pigs on pasture, too few to discuss here where I’m looking at jamón production generally.) And so while the Spanish have succeeded in the aesthetics of their jamón, in my view they have not done so on the ethics.

What’s the big deal about raising pigs in sheds anyway if the final product tastes good?

I spoke recently to a crowd of about 200 people confined in a lovely long hall and asked them whether they’d be happy to spend the next five months there with no opportunity to leave. I didn’t even mention that they’d wee and poo where they sat, and if they were lucky the floor would be slatted for the excrement to drain away from the mass of bodies. Nobody popped their hand up to stay in the building, and yet I’d wager that the majority in the room would regularly eat meat from animals who never left the shed in which they were raised.

Most conventional pig and poultry sheds suffer from air quality that is so poor the animals are vaccinated for pneumonia to keep them alive until slaughter at five to six months of age. I understand that in Australia, the industry has been leading some innovative reform to build sheds that are open ended and have straw rather than concrete on the floor – definite improvements in intensive production systems.

But even if we improve the air quality and deal with the concentration of effluence in responsible ways, is it enough? What kind of lives do pigs who can only mill about in a crowded shed have?

And we need to talk about breeds and the serious risks posed by lack of biodiversity, especially when compounded by intensive confinement. Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, talks about sheds of 15,000 turkeys as ‘food for flu’. They’re a perfect feasting ground for viruses without an ‘immunological firebreak’ due to the homogeneity of the animals. While he was in Australia recently, we discussed the idea of regional planning for diversity and resilience – active, informed, grassroots community planning to ensure we raise different breeds across a region to create that firebreak in case a virulent strain of swine or avian flu escapes the intensive sheds.

There’s a strong movement to eradicate routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in intensive livestock production – administered to everything from pigs and poultry in sheds to cattle in feedlots. The industry itself is discussing the problems of over-use of antibiotics, namely the rise of superbugs like MRSA and the threat that soon we won’t be able to treat the most basic bacterial infections with the most common antibiotics like penicillin. Denmark already banned the routine use of antibiotics and yet it is still the biggest producer of pork in the world, so it’s clearly possible. The Netherlands has similarly banned antibiotics, prompted by the fact that pig farmers there are >760 times more likely to be carriers for MRSA than other Dutch citizens – if they visit the hospital they’re immediately taken to quarantine to protect the rest of the population.

So we have compelling animal welfare, ecological, and public health arguments to radically change how we raise pigs and poultry, and yet while the fair food movement consistently makes many of these arguments about the ills of industrial agriculture, there is a distinctive gap in our ethics of practice. Our time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre this year highlighted this very clearly – as we elbowed our way through the crowds of people enjoying a day of tasting alleged slow food along the kilometres of stalls, we were disappointed to learn that all but one pork producer we could find were growing their pigs intensively indoors.

While Slow Food (like the Spanish jamón producers above) excels at the aesthetics of the food it promotes – promoting ‘slow’, traditional, and delicious, how is it doing at the ethics? What do ‘good, clean, and fair’ really mean? Slow Food International took a stand against foie gras a couple years ago, but it has not done so against intensive animal agriculture, and hosts many prosciutto producers at Salone del Gusto every two years who raise pigs in sheds. I would really like to see them pursue this discussion and take a strong position against intensive livestock production.

As I said on the Slow Meat panel at Terra Madre, just because you cure it slowly doesn’t make it slow… you need to grow it slowly too.

And the same goes for serving factory-farmed meat at fair food movement events – you can’t simply intellectualise this stuff and pontificate on the ills of Big Ag and the oligarchy while munching on their produce. If procuring ethically-raised meat is impossible due to complicated catering contracts and a dearth of small-scale pastured livestock farmers, we can at least serve vegetarian food (with its own attendant issues if sourced from the globalized industrial food system, e.g. tropical fruit in Victoria in the dead of winter… that’s not even an aesthetic success.).

As most people reading this already know, food has material impacts on the land and people that produce it, the animals raised for food, and the people who eat it. If we only take a moralizing analytical stab at the problems of the food system and then serve it up for dinner we are doing a material injustice to all parts of the very system we are trying to transform. Slow Food and all of us in the food sovereignty movement can and should show leadership (as Slow Food has on many topics) and insist on the ethics of meat production being at least of equal importance to the aesthetics.

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

10 thoughts on “On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat”

  1. Travelling around Germany in September, I was surprised to see almost no cattle or sheep out on the lovely green fields. A friend who lives there told me they are raised in the large sheds we saw under intensive farming methods. The grass is grown and harvested for hay, which we also saw happening, and fed to the animals in the the sheds. I understand the challenges of winter, but there’s something really wrong about this.

  2. You’ve read a lot of our minds, Tammi. When is the movement going to walk its walk? I’m almost over the ‘talking the talk’ bit. Also, how would you extend this argument to raising indigenous / native tucker animals. We are about to hold an event for Fair Food Chefs in Brisbane with Bruce Pascoe as our guest speaker – I’m sure this will be raised by a few in the room.

  3. What a fabulous read Tammois.
    However, how dispiriting to uncover the reality behind the marketing. I would have assumed that the food-stories behind their pig products would stand up to scrutiny but you’ve shown that with even a little digging, it doesn’t.
    Perhaps in Australia we have different expectations about animal welfare? Maybe the process of curing the meat is the main game over there whilst the pigs are simply relegated to ‘curing fodder, clay but to be moulded?
    I have to say I was surprised by your discovery that only one supplier at such a revered event was an ethical pork producer however its certainly not uncommon in everyday life. The food served to contestants on cooking shows, the snags eaten at school fetes and the catering offered at some food conventions have left me scratching my head at the incongruity of the situation.
    Anyways, well played you

  4. I don’t wish to disagree with you, Tammi, because my research was not as extensive as yours, but what you’ve described was not my experience. We spent days driving through south east Portugal and then back up the western side of Spain looking for the pigs in the pastures and saw none. We also did not see the white concrete sheds you describe as ubiquitous. My understanding is that the area is vast and the animals are simply illusive. My guide book brought me to a ham museum in Huelva where I met a local man who was running a ham school. He was a fountain of knowledge on the subject (and speaks fluent English). The next day we visited an organic farm. Again, we saw no pigs until the farmer called them. There were hundreds of them – they were just hidden. This was in June, before acorn season, and they were all outdoors. I’m not sure if this farm was simply one of the exceptions you mention or if your lack of luck in spotting them was just down to their illusiveness. I’m sure Angel and Lucy would be very happy to talk to you as they were very passionate about the product. You can find my story, including contact details, here. (Note that there are two parts to the post.) https://myfoododyssey.com/2013/06/30/iberico-ham-school-day-1

  5. It’s true, Susan, most animals in Europe are indoors. Long history to get there, but I agree, there’s something really wrong with that system. It will be a long road back for them I think.

  6. Really good question, Emma-Kate. The regulations around farming and/or hunting native animals in Australia are certainly not supporting food sovereignty or the maintenance of traditions of eating indigenous animals. I’m not an expert on this topic by any stretch, but it does seem to me that we should be eating more kangaroo and wallaby at the very least. Interested to hear Bruce’s thoughts on this!

  7. Thanks, Steve! Always delighted to get positive feedback from you as someone I admire. 🙂 It’s hard to unpack the European psyche but I think the longer history, less land and bigger populations all play a part, as does the industrialisation of agriculture like it does everywhere else. But the cover up is pretty irritating to say the least – I’m trying to take it as a positive sign – at least they’re becoming conscious enough of the animal welfare arguments to be defensive about their systems? (And do not get me started on cooking shows and school fete/democracy sausages!)

  8. Hi June – thanks so much for sharing your story. And I’m delighted to read of the farm you visited – lucky you! I wish I was simply mistaken but as a pig farmer in Australia I am very conscious of what millions of pigs out on the paddocks would look like, and they aren’t there in Spain. And not sure how you missed the sheds – again, perhaps it’s because I’ve spent years investigating industrial agriculture and I see those sheds readily now, whereas years ago I might have passed them by just seeing an agricultural shed but not understanding its contents?

    I did my due diligence though, and didn’t only rely on what we saw ourselves. In addition to researching pig production in Spain via the FAO and other websites, I asked a very knowledgeable Spanish man who conducts tours of the most famous jamon producers in Spain and here is what he wrote when I asked whether it was as I understood: “pigs are sent to the oak forest in october to start La Montanera, the last stage to fat the pigs. That’s why you did not see many of them. They are sent there from oct to fer/march. Even de 100% acorn-fed iberico pigs are grown in the farm in some stage.”

    But it’s great to hear that you found one of the rare farms where the pigs are genuine free range. Hopefully more will follow their lead.

    Great blog, by the way! Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks Tammi. You’re right that I probably wasn’t tuned into the pig sheds. I’m also glad I found one of the “good” farms. Like you, I would have been very deflated to find that most of the pigs were actually housed indoors.
    One other point I’ll make, and forgive me that it’s slightly off topic, is I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “European psyche”, whether related to farming practices, ethics or anything else. Australia is both a continent and a country. Europe is a continent with 50 countries, from Ireland in the west to the Caucasus in the east, from Cyprus in the south to Lapland in the north. There is incredible diversity across the continent. While there are few countries in the world with a lower population density than Australia (with Greenland being one of them, although there is debate about whether or not Greenland is part of Europe), there are plenty of areas with low population density. Even within the EU (which comprises only 26 of the 50 countries) there is incredible diversity. Farming practices and attitudes to food here in Lithuania are vastly different to my home country of Ireland. Most cattle and sheep in Ireland are outdoor bred for much if not all of the year, unlike some European countries. (Do you have a source for your point that most animals in Europe are indoors? I would genuinely be interested in a European-wide source of information on agricultural practices.) I have no doubt there are strong similarities across the major players (Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the UK), but they do not represent the content as a whole. This is not to take in any way from your point, which is that it’s a damn shame that these food products are not what they’re being marketed as and I’m happy to see these truths uncovered. But vive la différence!

  10. Thanks, June. That is an excellent point and how lazy of me to suggest there’s such a thing as a European psyche when what I meant were the major producers like Spain, Italy, France & Germany. My apologies, and accept my appreciation for being pulled up! 🙂 I only have figures on pigs indoors, but now you mention it if I can find time I’ll look for more. The FAO website has good data on agriculture globally if you want to do your own search. Thanks for the discussion – we currently have a wonderful volunteer resident from Ireland and I’m learning a lot about how things are done there, so it’s interesting to have your input as well.

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