“the luckiest, happiest pigs in the world . . .”: The Myth of “All Natural” (again)

 

Jamon Iberico de bellota is a Spanish ham routinely touted as one of the world’s finest cuts of meat. Food critic Ed Levine urges anyone who can afford the $96 a pound delicacy to indulge, calling it “ham as God would make it” (because, as we all know, God’s one hell of a pig farmer). The celebrated secret to Iberico de bellota’s succulence is pigs that roam oak forests to fatten themselves on a steady diet of sweet acorns. And therein also lies cause for foodies to go woozy: nature is producing for us, and its, like, the best ever!

While Iberico de bellota was garnering media attention a couple of years ago, after the USDA declared that it could not be imported attached to its hooves (to prevent the spread of disease), I found myself wondering about something more basic: acorns. Specifically, if acorns are so essential to Iberico de bellota, how do Spanish pig farmers guarantee a steady and well-timed supply? Could this be yet another case of farmers making a situation seem “natural” just so they could market to bunch of rich, precious, gullible pork lovers? I’m sure you know the answer.

Acorns are popular– not only with pigs but with insects. While insects aren’t smarter than pigs, they’re more resourceful when it comes to monopolizing a food supply. Throughout Spain, in fact, weevils, wasps, and moths can take an average 49 percent of a tree’s acorns before they fall. And when they do fall, wood mice compete for them. So how do these famous pigs get their share–which is 20 to 30 pounds of acorns a day? Speaking for niche producers of pork, one farmer said, “It isn’t sustainable, it isn’t very natural, but it tastes great.” (Well, yeah, God made it.)

To further explore my acorn question, I called Heath Putnam, founder and owner of Wooly Pigs Farms, which produces niche European pork in Washington State. Putnam believes that at least some acorns consumed by Iberico pigs are imported to western Spain, most likely from Tunisia or Turkey. A Spanish newspaper report supports his claim. Futher backup comes from Viktor Nordstrom, a student of Iberico production, who has gone so far as to suggest that Spanish producers might soon be importing acorns from the United States.

This is a messy claim, one that the foodie media would never explore because its job is to praise and promote these delicacies rather than actually investigate them. If true, acorngate challenges nothing less than the core identity of Iberico de bellota. Indeed, the image of rampant Iberico pigs living in a blissful state of nature is rampant. Just as much as they value its taste, consumers value the image of Iberico pigs eating a diet provided entirely by nature under all-natural conditions. Google up “free range” and “Iberico” and be prepared to swallow some propaganda.

Intrigued as I was, I had my doubts about these supposedly imported acorns. Putnam, after all, is raising pigs in this country to compete with a very expensive Spanish rival that has a very well-established mystique. To try to confirm his rather grim description of what’s so commonly praised as “nature’s slow food,” I checked in with Alberto Solis, director of sales and marketing for Fermin USA, an importer of Iberico products. His reaction to the charge? “I have never heard of anybody importing acorns into Spain to feed the Iberico pigs.” His colleague, Jonathan Harris, an owner of La Tienda, another Iberico importer, agreed, telling me: “That would be cheating.”

Welcome to the world of trying to figure out how food is made.

For all the disagreement, one thing is certain about the Iberico diet: the hogs eat more than the sweet acorns that fall from the majestic oaks under which they frolic. Iberico hogs consume a diet of (“all-natural”) commercial feed while in confinement for the first nine months of their truncated lives. Once released to the dehesa, their diet is carefully structured through an arrangement of continued commercial feed, acorns gathered and placed in strategic locations, acorns that have fallen naturally, and access to a man-made watering hole located a set distance from the food. The logic behind this carefully engineered system is that the animals will move around just enough to enhance flavor.

For now, the ultimate source of the Iberico acorns might have to remain a secret of la dehesa. But the attitudes about what those acorns represent are out in the open, and worth considering. Don Harris, Jonathan’s father and another owner of La Tienda, bluntly admits that “people want the romance” of nature in their food. Solis, the Iberico importer, goes further with the romance, telling me in an email, “James, these are the luckiest, happiest pigs in the world. No other pig spends the last 4-5 months of its life eating its favorite food (acorn), living in the wild, and practicing safe sex….”

Putnam, for his part, is generally unfazed by the romance. Speaking for niche producers of pork in general he explained, “We’ll do what it takes to get the fat and flavor as good as possible…It isn’t sustainable, it isn’t very natural, but it tastes great.”

So, as it so often does, the tyranny of taste rules. But even at $1,300 a hock, there’s very little that’s “all-natural” about Iberico pork.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

One Response to “the luckiest, happiest pigs in the world . . .”: The Myth of “All Natural” (again)

  1. Dr. McWilliams,
    I appreciate your article on Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, and you make some very good points. It is important to look carefully at product claims, especially when it comes to animal welfare.

    At its very best, I believe that Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is a treasure; a confluence of history, nature and culinary artistry; an expression of the very finest of Spain’s traditional cuisine; and a product that has helped protect the ancient dehesa range land from development.

    Like all precious foods – be it white truffles, saffron or Bordeaux wine – the fame and high price of these products invite some to cut corners or deceive in the name of easy profits. That some companies ship in foreign acorns to feed the pigs certainly would not be ethical. But it would be a mistake to allow these bad actors to ruin the reputation of one of the great foods of the world. Because there are forgeries of great wines, does that make the authentic versions illegitimate?

    Thankfully, in the last ten years, the Spanish authorities have implemented stricter standards on what constitutes a true Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. This has helped deter fraud and protect the legitimacy of this great ham. It does not solve the problem entirely, but it certainly supports the farmers and curing houses that make authentic, top quality Ibérico de Bellota ham.

    Yes, there is a good amount of romanticism and passion for this ham. Sometimes some of us enthusiasts can get carried away in our descriptions. You are right that not all Ibérico pigs live their whole lives free on the dehesa countryside munching on acorns. In fact, if the ham does not have “Bellota” designation and is merely called Jamón Ibérico, the Ibérico pig probably did not see the dehesa at all.

    But Ibérico pigs destined to become Jamón Ibérico de Bellota do live at least the last several months of their lives in the countryside free of confinement, and some producers indeed do require the pigs to live free on the dehesa their entire lives after weaning. Compared to industrial pigs that live a maximum of 5 months in miserable conditions, their lives are extraordinarily long and happy. While not even close to universal practice in Spain, it is inspiring that this type of animal husbandry has survived into modern times at all, and sets an important example.

    In the end, as with great wine, ensuring that you purchase a top quality Jamón Ibérico de Bellota from well cared-for animals comes down to the reputations of individual ham producers. No one should buy any old bottle from Bordeaux and presume it is the finest. Instead, with wine, ham or any other rare and costly food, it is important to do some research and support a brand that has a great reputation and is willing to share the evidence of its quality and humane practices.

    Sincerely,

    Jonathan Harris
    La Tienda

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