How much does your Iberico cost?

by: George Major
20 Aug 2018

Driven by global demand for iberico ham, pigs now outnumber people in Spain, with around 46 million people to 50 million pigs. On the face of it, this would appear to represent a triumph for a traditional industry producing a quality product. But the truth is a little less rosy.

Top-quality iberico ham is produced from pigs that spend their last months grazing in forests, free-range, feeding on acorns. Or at least it is supposed to be. The sheer number of pigs being farmed in Spain means that there are not enough quality control inspectors to track the provenance of all the pigs going to slaughter. So, it is easy for unscrupulous distributors to cut corners. And, given that demand for lucrative iberico ham outstrips supply, there is plenty of incentive for them to do so.

And it gets much worse than that. This year French police uncovered a network of dodgy iberico suppliers who were taking past-its-sell-by-date iberico ham that should have been en-route to the incinerator, relabelling it and selling it as if it were fresh. The scam was discovered when shoppers found worms in the meat.

However, these are not the biggest problems caused by the world’s love of Iberico ham. Each pig raised for ham consumes around 15 litres of water a day. Multiply that by Spain’s 50 million pigs, add in Europe’s ongoing heatwave and increasingly frequent droughts, and you have a recipe for meltdown.

Those 50 million pigs produce a lot of pig poo. So much that the groundwater in iberico ham-producing regions is becoming contaminated - as will happen in any intensively-farmed region. This level of pollution is a real threat to those picturesque acorn forests where the pigs graze, which in turn, threatens the viability of the whole iberico ham industry.

It is already well established that meat production is one of the largest global contributors to climate change, through the carbon dioxide and methane produced by livestock. The example of iberico ham demonstrates how, by concentrating production in a small area, our addiction to fancy labels is making matters far worse.