THE IBERICO PORK SECTOR (I)
Some of the most distinguishable Spanish food products comes from the iberico pigs: iberico hams, shoulders, chorizo, salchichon, loin, and fresh meat like pluma or secreto. Any one reading this blog will already be aware of these products.
An explanation of the factors that make this sector a very complex one will be attempted here.
The iberico pig has been traditionally linked to a particular type of ecosystem, the “dehesa”, a combination of Mediterranean forest and farming land that takes decades to develop. The dehesa is a forest of mainly oak trees which have been pruned (trimmed) for many years for them to become robust and give a good amount of acorns during the season (montanera). The woodland is clear of bushes and weaker trees, so a good distance is kept between the trees, allowing the grass to flourish. The perfect habitat for the pigs to live, particularly during the season when the acorns naturally fall down from the trees. Being a very oily fruit, pigs also need plenty of grass to refresh themselves, along with flowers, roots, mushrooms, etc…
In order to get all this food, pigs keep moving through the land, and this exercise is also part of the excellent end product obtained from them.
Dehesa is a system that provides not only a variety of foods for pigs and other farm animals, but also a wildlife habitat for endangered species such as the Iberian lynx and the Spanish imperial eagle, and a beautiful landscape. One that cannot be subjected to industrialization and which cannot be moved or copied abroad (unless anyone is willing to invest and spend many decades of work to transform a wild oak forest into a dehesa proper).
The traditional iberico pig sector has always been linked to the dehesa, which is, by its own nature, quite limited with regards to the number of pigs that can be brought up on them, both “iberico de cebo de campo” (fed with prepared food but kept on the open environment of the dehesa) and “iberico de bellota” (living solely on the available natural food (acorns, grass, etc…) during the montanera season before being sacrificed.
During the last 20 years or so the iberico production has expanded enormously, with the introduction of intensive farming and industrial methods that have allowed the number of pigs and pig products to multiply. There has been a similar pattern everywhere we look at, not only within the food business: from furniture to clothing to book edition. An industrialization pattern that has brought significant benefits, expanding the range of consumers who have been able to afford those products, with some evident drawbacks, like the lowering of quality associated with it.
Within the iberico sector this is a process that started not so long ago, most significantly in the 90’s of the last century, and is still and on-going process: some companies have from the very beginning opted to be industrial, sacrificing quality for better yields, sourcing their animals at intensive farms, mixing the iberico breed with more productive ones, optimising procedures, automating all the production steps, controlling temperatures and other factors during the curing process, etc…
Some others have kept tradition alive, sacrificing only pigs which have been brought up in extensive farming at the dehesa, older animals of better quality and lower yields, maintaining their natural curing chambers for the slow maturing of their process. They obviously need higher prices to be profitable, being their costs significantly higher than those of the industrial type, and are subjected to slower rates of growth.
Many producers, however, are suffering from a sort of schizophrenia, not willing or unable to decide where they want to be, what market segments to attend to, and are therefore producing a mix of products to try to serve everyone. An almost impossible task.
It is understandable the desire to grow and bring further benefits to themselves and the communities where they set up their factories. However, it has proved extremely difficult to manage this growth, with an end result, in plenty of cases, of a heterogeneous production, mixing the very best with the frankly bad, a mixture that, due to some other features of this sector, is very difficult to manage efficiently. Many producers are within this category, and it will take time, and a big effort from them, to get organized.
The above factor affects the iberico sector more than others within the food business because they have not been subjected to the same level of competition from other regions until recently, and are still excluded from direct competition from abroad (obviously the iberico sector competes with other producers of charcutery from abroad, like Parma, etc… but they really stand apart in enough aspects as to not to consider them as direct competition in a strict sense).
It will take time until many of these producers position themselves more clearly, and focus their efforts to compete within the different market segments.