Before cured meat, Consider the Animals

18 September 2021

Slow Food’s latest research on European geographical indications for cured pork products paints a dispiriting picture

Slow Food’s new research study, European Quality Schemes, Between Identity-Shaping Values and the Market, was presented today at Cheese 2021. An analysis of the production specifications for 176 cured pork products registered under one of the European Union’s quality schemes, it fits in perfectly with the theme of this year’s Cheese, “Consider the Animals.” Apart from cheese, animals are also responsible for our bacon, ham and salami, some of the food products most commonly found on Western tables. Tasty and convenient, they are not only popular with consumers, but also among the most important European food exports, protected by geographical indications (GI) such as the protected denomination of origin (PDO) and protected geographical indication (PGI) schemes.

These geographical indications are supposed to protect and support traditional European food products, defend diversity and reward quality, but a closer look at their product specifications reveals plenty of gray areas, and ultimately a discouraging picture when it comes to sustainability, animal welfare and consumer health.

“The European regulations are currently in the process of being revised, and our hope is that the new specifications will be more rigorous, if they want to focus on sustainability and quality and stand out in the global market,” said Raffaella Ponzio, coordinator of Slow Food’s Slow Meat campaign. “Protecting a traditional product means guaranteeing the production conditions that have shaped its fame and identity. We should not forget that the animals’ welfare and their diet are vital to giving identity to cured meats and ensuring their sensory quality, just as much as the skills linked to their processing.”

A total of 650 pig breeds are registered around the world, of which 150 have died out and another 164 are at risk of being lost forever. Over 95% of European pork production is based on a tiny number of breeds, genetically selected for their performance and their contribution to increasing farm profits. Of the 176 product specifications analyzed, 79 (44.9%) make no reference to any specific pig breed, while 30 (17%) indicate the use of commercial breeds like the Large White, the Landrace and the Duroc. The most virtuous products, whose specifications require the use of native breeds, are concentrated in Portugal, Spain and France, the three European countries that Slow Food’s research showed were the most attentive to a number of important indicators.

Looking at the origin of the meat, it is clear that the limitations set by the specifications are not very well defined. For 89 products (50.6% of the total), no indication is given for the origin of the meat. Another 74 products (42%) specify that the pigs used to make them must at least be farmed within the production area, and out of these, just 41 (23.3%) require that the pigs be not only reared but also born within the same area. Turning around that last figure, we can see that 135 specifications out of 176 (76.7% of the total) contain no limitation nor indication about where the pigs are born.

Specifications about farming techniques are also fairly murky: 127 specifications (72.2% of the total) take no position on the subject, allowing any practice that is not banned by national or European law. Given that over 75% of the 150 million pigs in the EU are raised on huge farms (and only 3% on farms with just a few dozen animals), it is clear that the vast majority of the products–whether salami, ham, cured sausages or pork preserves like rillettes—come from intensive farms where the techniques used are far from ideal in regards to animal welfare. The exceptions again are mostly in Portugal, Spain and France, the countries where  47 specifications demand extensive or semi-extensive farming.

What does this all mean?

Further details reveal more of the bigger picture. Looking at the weight and age of the animal at the moment of slaughter, for example, we can see that 40.3% of specifications (71 out of 176) set no limitations, while 21 specify only the weight and three only the age. Less than half (81) set standards for both.

Another aspect that demands serious attention is the distance of the slaughterhouse from the farm, because transport is a source of great stress and suffering for the animals. As many as 72.2% (127) of the specifications do not set any limit on this distance. Every year 1.037 billion livestock animals are transported in EU countries alone, of which 1 billion are chickens and other poultry and 37 million are cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and horses. Out of these journeys, 8 million last over 8 hours. Many continue for as much as 30 hours and in some cases even 96 hours, in other words four consecutive days.

During these lengthy journeys, the health of the animals is seriously compromised: Loading and unloading operations, the long hours on the road, overcrowding, exhaustion, hunger and thirst all cause stress and suffering, as do the falls, injuries and disease that are more common during transport and can even be fatal.

We eat what the animals eat

More than two-thirds (67.6%) of the regulations give no specific indications about the origin of the feed for the animals, even though diet is actually a crucial aspect for meat quality. Italy imports between 85% and 90% of its soy and soy meal from Brazil, Argentina, the USA and Canada, countries where most of the soy grown is genetically modified (74% of the soy cultivated around the world is from GMOs), meaning it is evident that most of the feed for pigs farmed in Italy contains GMOs. Only organic agriculture does not allow genetically modified crops in feed, as do two French PDOs (Jambon de Noir de Bigorre and Jambon de Porc Kintoa, whose producers also belong to Slow Food Presidia). Only 8.5% of specifications ban some foods or products, like fish meal, dairy by-products and slaughter waste.

And what about grazing? A minority, with just 46 specifications out of 176 (26.1%) stating that the animals should graze. Once again, these are in France, Portugal and Spain.

Let’s conclude with a reflection on nitrites and nitrates, two substances used during the production of cured pork products to control microbial growth. They act as preservatives, help maintain color and add flavor. But these substances are considered dangerous and potentially carcinogenic, if consumed in excessive quantities. While the amounts of nitrites and nitrates in cured meats are not technically dangerous, these are compounds that we already consume every day through other sources, like vegetables and water. Limiting their use in animal products is therefore important, particularly given that producing cured meats without nitrites and nitrates is possible. This “natural” charcuterie has long been promoted by Slow Food.

“It is clear that the production of GIs is closely linked to an industrial model of animal farming, which has a huge environmental impact, serious consequences on consumer health and little respect for the animals being farmed,” said Raffaela Ponzio. “European regulations should set out some general guidelines, adapted for each product category and valid in every country, that demand minimum requirements for crucial aspects. These could be used to draw up product specifications and ensure they are interpreted and applied coherently.”

The current situation is, to say the least, disheartening. Based on its analysis, Slow Food is therefore asking that:

  • production protocols specifically include indications about how the animals are farmed, with greater respect for their welfare; higher quality, locally sourced feed; and slaughtering within the production area.
  • the use of local breeds is encouraged, with the revival of historic genotypes and farming using extensive methods.
  • the use of nitrites, nitrates and other chemical additives are banned and instead replaced with technological processes involving temperature, and if necessary with natural substances of plant origin.
  • for the PDOs, greater attention is paid to the recovery of historical and traditional aspects of the production practices, including the definition of the historical production areas and the natural aging spaces.
  • the transport of live animals over long distances is banned and that transport over distances less than 100 kilometers is also minimized, as it causes trauma to the animals.