Cured meat in Europe: analyzing protected products

18 September 2021

On Friday September 17, at Cheese, Slow Food presented original research into the geographic indication systems in Europe (Protected Designation of Origin, or PDO, and Protected Geographical Indication, or PGI) for cured pork products.

This extensive new study covers 176 pork products across the European Union, and analyzes the differences between them in terms of animal welfare and transparency.

The first thing which the author of the study, Chiara Palandri, explained at Before Cured Meats, Consider the Animals was the difference between the different systems in place: the PDOs require that all phases of the production process take place in a specific geographic area, while for the PGIs only one phase of the production process needs to take place in the area of reference—a key difference which many consumers are unaware of.

What both systems have in common, however, is that both PDOs and PGIs are governed by production protocols which define how the product must be made in order to be able to use the logo. These protocols are developed by the producers’ consortium, and as such are highly variable.

Puglia

But the more important question, as Slow Food sees it, is this: where do these products stand in terms of environmental and social sustainability? What do the production protocols have to say on the matter?

The picture, as Chiara Palandri explained, is far from clear. Indeed, as was the case with a similar study carried out on cheese PDOs and PGIs, there are many aspects of their production which are not consistent with the regulatory framework and the stated objectives of these European systems.

Farming practices

Starting with breeds, it is interesting to note that for 45% of the 176 pork products studied, the breed used to make it is not specified. Only 28% use a well-specified local breed, while the others use commercial breeds. Where these pigs come from is unimportant for the majority of products studied, too: just 23% of them specify that piglets must be born in a certain geographic area. Even more worryingly, the farming practices used to raise these pigs is not specified in the production protocols of 72% of the products, and just 4.5% of them specify that pigs must be raised in an extensive outdoors environment.

Another aspect of animal welfare that is rarely considered by protected pork products in Europe is the distance that the pigs travel between their farms and the slaughterhouse. Indeed, for 72% of them do not set any limits on the distance. As such, slaughtering usually takes places far away from where the pigs were reared, and the distances they travel to slaughter have doubled over the last 30 years.

Animal diet and additives

What the pigs eat is also largely vague: for two-thirds of protected products the origin of their feed is not specified, and just 1% ban the use of genetically-modified feed. Only 26% of products specify that pigs must be allowed to graze outdoors, and all of these products are from France, Spain and Portugal.

Suino nero Sicilia

Another important consideration is the use of additives, a theme which Slow Food has actively discouraged over the years. Nitrites and nitrates are banned in just 11% of PDOs and PGIs. Regarding the use of other additives, sugars, and starter cultures, 99 of the 176 protected products make no mention in their production protocol, meaning they implicitly allowed. Just 26 of the 176 explicitly ban their use.

In general, the picture is highly concerning. There is a serious underestimation of the production phases prior to the processing of the meat, from the farming methods to slaughter. These products should represent the pinnacle of European cured meat, but there is a serious lack of attention towards several aspects which impact on the quality of the products. As such, Slow Food demands:

  • An improvement in the sustainability requirements of this institution of protected products in order to protect biodiversity
  • That respectful farming practices and adeguate diets be made mandatory for all protected products
  • That the genetic and cultural value of native animal breeds be promoted
  • That nitrites and nitrates be banned from cured meat production
  • That the geographic areas of production be well-defined
  • That the transport of animals over long distances to slaughter be banned

What response from Europe?

Also present at the conference was Branka Tome of the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI) of the European Commission. She thanked Slow Food for the study and said it would be useful during the next phases of legislation regarding sustainability in the food sector.

The utility of the study is self-evident, as Tome stated: because although the European Union employs experts to analyze applications for protected status on a case-by-case basis, and there is no overall view of the different sectors that PDOs and PGIs are applied to. Slow Food hopes that the study will be taken into consideration as the European Union draws up new legislation, which should be presented in a few month’s time. There is increasing consumer demand for food to be environmentally- and socially-sustainable, and the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy is, at least partially, a response to this demand, but the implementation of the strategy is still a work in progress.

Tome highlighted another aspect which the Slow Food study did not deal with in detail, i.e the healthiness of the food products for consumers. “We’d like to do something for health and we will propose measures to make relatively unhealthy PDOs and PGIs healthier by restricting the use of salt, sugar and fat where possible without significantly changing the final product. The PDO for San Daniele ham has already gone in this direction.”

Farmers’ voices

We also heard from two Italian farmers, Jacopo Goracci of Tenuta di Paganico and Stefano di Fiore, a producer of Vastese Ventricina, a Slow Food Presidium in Abruzzo. As Jacopo said, the systems in place to regulate meat products are not generally structured in favor of the animals. “But we’re here to consider the animals, and to do that properly we need a wide range of skilled people involved in their lives. Agronomists, and veterinarians too. The point is that these animals have their needs, their preferences, and we need to try and understand them: we owe that to them, given that we are raising them for our own needs. It’s matter of respect.”

Stefano di Fiore, on the other hand, is an example of a farmer who has made a real, concrete effort to improve the conditions on his farm in recent year, making the conversion from conventional to organic agriculture. “It’s taken three years to complete the conversion, but soon the first products with an organic logo will hit the shelves. We don’t use any chemicals or additives, just salt, spices and chili pepper. That’s how our grandparents used to do it too. The other important aspect to ensure a safe, healthy and high-quality product is the temperature, which we’re mindful of. The meat must be constantly kept at a low temperature to ensure there is no explosion in bacterial count in the meat.”

While it is encouraging to know that there are farmers who are moving in the right direction, but as is clear from the overall picture of the study, we cannot simply rely on the good will of individual farmers to improve the living conditions of farm animals in Europe. We need stronger, more explicit regulations that enforce higher standards of animal welfare and environmental sustainability, a message that Slow Food has been delivering to the European Commission for many years both through participation in consulations and exchanges with policy makers. We eagerly await the presentation of new legislation by the European Union expected in December 2021; legislation which has been a long time coming.

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it