It has been a crazy couple of weeks at the offices of the Interprofessional Association of the Iberian Pig (Asici). The organization is responsible for handing out the colored seals that will denote the quality and origin of Iberian meat products, under a law passed earlier this month. The phones have not stopped ringing since the legislation came into force. "The most urgent thing has been to attend to the abattoirs because all of the animals being slaughtered since last Monday now have to be color-coded in accordance with the new rules," says an Asici employee.
The four colors tell consumers the breed and feed of the meat they are purchasing: black for pure Iberian pigs that have been fed only oak acorns in open orchards (bellota); red for cross-breeds that have also foraged acorns; green for grazing cross-breeds; and white for mixed-breed animals fed on fodder in enclosures. A fifth color, brown, denotes animals fed on a mix of acorns and fodder, a category the new law has eliminated but that will remain in circulation until current stocks expire.
However, this system will not be visible on the shelves for some time. The government has established a generous crossover period, "so that producers can adapt to the new classifications without losing money," says the state secretary general for agriculture, Isabel García Tejerina. This will allow businesses that have products in the curing phase, or that are ready to be released onto the market, to use the old labeling system for their remaining stock.
"The first products to carry the new labels will be pork, which requires the least time to cure. But in other cases it could take as long as three years, taking into account the fact that some Iberian hams take that long to cure," says José Luis Urquijo, vice president of the Spanish Association of Iberian Pig Breeders (Aeceriber). "But many farmers, above all those of us who breed pure Iberians, are going to try to apply the new color code as soon as possible because it makes things much clearer for consumers, even though we'll have to pay to throw out all the old labels and replace them with the new ones. As such I hope to save myself all the explanations I have to give every time I want to sell a ham."
Part of these explanations is the result of an image of fraudulence that has overshadowed the sector in recent years. According to Aeceriber, 30 percent of all products marketed as pure Iberian are not certified as such, a situation attributed by associations and the government not so much to a lack of regulation but to an absence of strict inspections. There has been a lot of criticism of the companies responsible for certification for labeling products as 100-percent Iberian when they are not. "They are private companies that depend on what the farmers pay them, so sometimes they look the other way and certify what they are asked to," says Urquijo. Regional government inspectors have also fallen short in their duties at sales points. The result is a market that has been flooded with hams purporting to be pure Iberian in origin but that in some cases are not even 50-percent pure. Others bear images of acorn-fed animals when the pigs that went into the product had never set a trotter in an open orchard.
The so-called "ham bubble" has not helped matters. Traditionally, Iberian ham has been inextricably linked to the orchards and an extensive system of production, based on grasses and acorns and a breed adapted to that ecosystem. Under these restrictions, Iberian ham has always been situated in a consumer segment of exceptional quality, with prices to match, and which therefore occupies a relatively small share of the domestic market. Internationally, it is also restricted to certain countries and types of consumer.
But this system was reduced to tatters in the early 2000s when Agriculture Minister Miguel Arias Cañete attempted to impose some order in a sector that was then practically unregulated by introducing a category system for Iberian ham products: orchard Iberian pigs and free range and farmed half-breeds, all under the Iberian umbrella. This allowed breeders of other pigs and industrial meat producers to bring in pure-breed animals to raise the price of their stocks, leading to a price popularization that saw some Iberian-based products retailing at cheaper rates than the less-valued Serrano ham. But this also resulted in huge confusion in the market and among consumers.
The new law, while not definitively shutting the door on mass production, will at least afford consumers a broader knowledge of what they are buying: as well as the color-coding system for alimentation, the pureness of the breeds employed will also be displayed on the labels: 100-percent Iberians; 75-percent (a pure-breed mother and a father crossed with another breed, usually a Duroc); and 50-percent (a pure-breed mother and a Duroc father). Furthermore, it prohibits the use of the term pata negra for any product that is not 100-percent Iberian acorn-fed pig in origin, as well as the misleading practice of including images of bellota animals or oak orchards on packaging for products that are not pure Iberian.
The system seems simple but the problem, again, is how to ensure it is adhered to. The government has set up a coordinating committee to oversee the regulation and has enlisted the aid of Aeceriber to monitor breed certification — its remit will give it power over the private certifying companies. As of now, every animal marketed as 100-percent Iberian bellota must be recorded in the Genealogical book of the pure-breed Iberian pig, a sort of Domesday tome for the species that Aeceriber has kept for the past 30 years.
"As we are an independent, non-profit organization and not connected to any producers, we are a guarantee that when the time comes to certify an animal's breed there will be no conflict of interest," says the association's vice president.
Under the new rules, only hogs listed in the book can be certified as pata negra animals.