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.

Don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin

I often shock people when I say ‘don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin‘. My rationale is that if all chooks were raised properly on the paddocks, we actually wouldn’t eat very many of them – our grandparents typically ate chicken once a year – and most chooks are not raised this way in Australia. And even those that are are typically breeds of chicken that struggle to walk with their over-sized breasts, and are more susceptible to heart attacks. I don’t personally believe that respects the ‘chickenness of the chicken’, hence the only chicken we eat are surplus roosters and spent hens from our own small house flock.

So imagine my delight by the introduction in Australia of the Sommerlad breed of chicken, a heritage hybrid that is vigorous and healthy and able to display all its natural behaviours out on the paddocks. We have the inspiring couple Bruce and Roz Burton of Milking Yard Farm growing them outside Trentham near us, and my friend and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) vice-president Jeff Pow and his wife Michelle McManus of Southampton Homestead in WA also include Sommerlads in their system.

And then equally delightfully, the wonderful Laura Dalrymple of ethical meatsmiths Feather & Bone up in Sydney wrote in detail about the meat chicken industry in Australia, and has graciously allowed me to re-post her excellent description here for your edification.

So read on – hopefully this will help you in your own journey to eat better meat, less.

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THE TRIBULATIONS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING: SOMMERLAD HERITAGE CHOOKS ARE BACK! 
Last time we wrote to you we featured Buena Vista Farm in a sad tale about the trials of sustainable farming. Mr not-at-all-fantastic Fox got in and slaughtered 100 chooks and caused great distress all round. Today, you’ll be pleased to hear, we’re doing the tribulation story.

We’ve carried on in an embarrassingly demonstrative way about these chooks before so we’ll try to keep it a bit more cool and collected this time round. Essentially, the Sommerlad Heritage chook represents a revolution in the meat chicken industry in Australia. Here’s a brief explanation of why we’re so excited.

This is how most meat chickens in Australia are raised.

Pictures of broiler chooks from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site

1. Breed
All meat chickens available in Australia are white feathered ‘broiler’ chooks from two main strains, Ross and Cobb. Over the last 60 years, these birds have been selected and bred for specific traits – disproportionately large breasts and the capacity to grow inside sheds at exponential rates so they’re ‘market ready’ by five weeks.

 Buena Vista Farm, December 2014: chick transport boxes, newly-arrived chicks.

2. Day-old chicks
The business of raising and distributing commercially viable volumes of day-old chicks for farmers across the country to grow out to market size is dominated by a small number of big, well-resourced poultry businesses. Breeding chickens are kept in large sheds with a standard ration of one male to every ten hens, their eggs are collected and incubated and then the day-old chicks are shipped out to farms to be grown out to market rates.

 Picture of a free range farm from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site
3. Free range 
While these chicks are mostly raised in sheds, 20% of Australian farmers practice free range and pastured farming. This number is growing as consumer demand increases and this is a good thing because it means that birds have access to open land outside the shed during daylight hours. However, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘Free Range’ and ‘Pasture Raised’.

The majority of commercially available free range chicken brands in Australia, such as Lilydale, Willowton, Mt Barker, Macro and Bannockburn are certified by the Free Range Egg and Poultry (FREPA) organisation – 100 plus farms. FREPA’s standards stipulate a much lower stocking density than the conventional system and require access to range land outside the shed that provides shade and vegetation.  

In all other key respects including housing, equipment, ventilation, temperature, health practices, age at processing and slaughter practices, the FREPA standard defaults to the standard conventional code. Among other things, this means that FREPA accredited chickens follow the conventional standard which allows for birds to be ‘harvested’ as early as 30-35 days (4-5 weeks). Access to outdoor areas is given to fully feathered birds of approximately 21 days or three weeks of age. Given that they are generally harvested between five and six weeks that’s not a long time. 

 Pastured broiler chooks at Buena Vista enclosed by mobile electric fencing.

4. Pasture raised
The growers we work with practice ‘pasture raised’ farming. So they receive day-old broiler chooks and raise them exclusively outside on pasture at very low stocking densities and with access to shelter rather than the other way around. The key differences between pasture raised and FREPA free range birds are these.

  • Smaller groups of birds in lower stocking densities with permanent access to range lands – mostly moved to fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing.
  • The freedom to graze on fresh green pick, bugs etc providing additional nutrition and protein.
  • Greater capacity to express instinctive behaviour due to lower stocking densities. 
  • Life spans of eight to nine weeks, almost double the conventional standard.
  • More muscular, robust, deeply-flavoured product 

5. Feather and Bone chooks
Buena Vista Farm: groups of about 100 birds with very low stocking densities rotated onto fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing – broiler and Sommerlad flocks.

Hillside Farm: small groups of about 50 broiler birds rotated onto fresh pasture daily and contained in Joel Salatin-style chook tractors.

Inglewood organic: ACO certified – broiler birds kept in sheds at night, the sides of which are raised during the day to provide access to pasture. Fed certified organic feed and processed at eight to nine weeks. 

 Sommerlad Heritage chooks at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

6. Sommerlad Heritage pasture raised chook
The Sommerlad Heritage chook, however, is something altogether new. After many years of research working with different breeds, bird nutritionist and chook experts Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad have developed a new breed of chicken with strong bones and even distribution of meat specifically designed to thrive as a pasture raised bird in Australian conditions. This is a bird that retains many of the behavioural characteristics that have been intentionally bred out of the broiler which is designed to become relatively immobile in order to quickly fatten to market size. Among other behaviours, the Sommerlad birds have well-developed survival instincts and seek appropriate shelter at night so predation from foxes and hunting birds is reduced. They graze enthusiastically, take pleasure from playing and
respond vigorously to a life lived literally running around outside on pasture. They look pretty good too, particularly the very bizarre Transylvanian Naked Neck which is included in the programme because of its capacity to deal with hot Australian summers.

The Sommerlads have authorised a handful of farmers with demonstrated expertise in pasture raising chickens to grow these birds and, after we introduced them about a year ago, Adam and Fiona at Buena Vista Farm became part of that group. 

About half of the batch we’re receiving on Wednesday are pre-sold so, if you’re interested, please get your orders in quickly. Or don’t, because then there might be one left for us.

Sommerlad Heritage chooks including the Transylvanian Naked neck at Buena Vista, 15/12/14