Eduardo García. Journalist
Ibérico ham, an emblematic product from Spain and an authentic element of Marca España on Spain's gastronomy scene. A universal delicacy in Spain. According to the latest market stud published by the sector, 96% of Spaniards are familiar with Ibérico ham and 85% say they buy it regularly. In fact, Spanish consumers ate 13,000 tons of Ibérico ham in the last year alone.
However, the truth of the matter is that we're no experts, and our understanding is limited to distinguishing between "good ham and bad ham," according to Andrés Paredes, who heads the Interprofessional Iberian Pig Association (ASICI), which comprises 90% of Spain's producers and 90% of its industrial branch. But if we ask about Quality Standard seals, the jig is up: 64% of Spanish consumers have no idea what they are.
To remedy this, the Identification, Traceability and Quality System (ÍTACA) has been rolled out, with a Quality Standard seal which will be mandatory for all Ibérico hams. It's a little bit like an identity card that lets buyers know where the ham came from and all of the characteristics about the pig. Says Paredes, "Never before have consumers been able to choose which Ibérico ham, based on criteria and a guarantee, best fits their needs."
The ÍTACA is a pioneering digital tool which highlights Ibérico product traceability and quality and was designed and developed by the ASICI. Farmers, slaughterhouses and plants should use it to ensure that information is duly registered and can be verified after the fact by the team of technicians, who spontaneously check up on each part of the process to ensure that the data included in the system is accurate and to rule out fraud and fakes.
But how exactly does the ÍTACA work? Is it possible to game the system? The answer is a resounding "no." The tool collects every last detail and each step verifies another in the process, where users cannot proceed to the next step if the standards don't align. Every piece of data is critical, from the piglet's birth until it reaches the point-of-sale.
From the Association's website, the organizations involved in the chain must complete mandatory registration and include all data required by the system. Manuel Gómez, Technical Director of the ASICI, is well aware of the extra work required in implementing a new tool for farmers, slaughterhouses and plants, saying that "for a medium-sized farm, just dedicating 15 minutes a year is more than enough." The ÍTACA also manages, provides support for and processes the information, completing necessary calculations to make the system as easy to use as possible for all sector players.
This novel tool not only provides access to these three groups, but it also allows access to others that play a role in the process, such as suppliers. That includes, for example, ear tag suppliers, who must comply with various specifications to be able to work with the industry.
Seals and labels—what's it all about?
There are four seals, which must bear the ASICI color and logo, enabling consumers to distinguish between the types of Ibérico pigs from which they come. It must also indicate what the pig ate, its breed, and the reference to the Quality Standard underlying the system (Royal Decree 4/2014).
- Black: Jamón de bellota 100% Ibérico (100% Ibérico acorn-fed ham). This seal provides a guarantee that the pig's mother and father were both of the Ibérico breed, duly registered in the pedigree books and, during the fattening period, that it exclusively ate acorns and other natural elements on the dehesa.
- Red: Jamón 100% de bellota (Acorn-fed ham). Unlike the black seal, the red one guarantees that the ham came from pigs that were 75% or 50% Ibérico breed which fed exclusively on acorns and other natural elements on the dehesa.
- Green: Jamón de Cebo de Campo (Acorn- and grain-fed ham) This ham comes from pigs that 100%, 50% or 75% Ibérico breed that eat fodder, mainly grains, legumes as well as grass.
- White: Jamón de Cebo Ibérico (Ibérico grain-fed ham). This ham comes from 100%, 75% or 50% Ibérico pigs which are mainly fed fodder, primarily comprising grains and legumes.
To complete the information available to consumers, the information on the seal should supplement that provided on the label, and both must be consistent. The latter must include references to the type of product (ham, shoulder or loin); what the pig ate (acorns, grass or fodder); its breed percentage (100%, 75% or 50% Ibérico); and the name of the independent oversight entity, i.e. the certifying agency which guarantees its quality after tracking it from birth to point-of-sale.
According to the data managed by the ASICI, more than six million Quality Standard seals were placed on hams in 2016: 513,734 on 100% Ibérico acorn-fed hams; 621,485 on Ibérico acorn-fed hams; 1,241,492 on acorn- and grain-fed hams; and 3,728,388 on grain-fed hams.
The process, step by step
The first step of the process begins with farmers who, after registering in the ÍTACA, must indicate all of their farms and their certifying authority. During this step, they must indicate how many animals they have for breeding, both female and male, as well as the breed of the animals which will yield Quality Standard products by using ear tags, with exclusive codes for each group. The ear tags allow for breed, age, the conditions under which the animal was reared and handled, and its food plan to be verified.
Once this information has been registered in the system, the fattening period begins. Pigs feed on acorns, grains or fodder. The duration of this process varies according to the length of time the pig stays on the dehesa and the food it's eating. It's important to note that, in all cases, the mother must be 100% Ibérico.
- Acorn-fed: 100% acorn-fed pigs stay for a minimum of 60 days, from October 1st to December 15th, during which time the animals feed on acorns and other elements on the dehesa, and pigs are at least 14 months old. These pigs may not weight less than 108 kg when they are slaughtered, and they should gain 46 kg while on the dehesa.
- Cebo de campo: this Ibérico pig stays for at least 60 days on the farm but does not have a specific requirements in this regard. During this time it feeds on acorns and other elements on the dehesa, animal fodder, grains and legumes. This type of breed requires a minimum space of 100 m2 if it weighs more than 110 kg, and the minimum age is 12 months old. The minimum weight at the time of slaughter is 115 kg.
- Cebo: this Ibérico pig needs a space of at least 2 m2 if it weighs more than 110 kg. The minimum age is 10 months and it eats a fodder-based diet. The minimum weight at the time of slaughter is 115 kg.
This is the second part of the process and the phase in which the seal is assigned. The pigs that have completed their minimum stay during the fattening period will be ready for slaughter. The process is quick. The slaughterhouse will already have received the list of groups to be slaughtered the following day, and simply has to confirm that it has those animals and give them a new identification according to this next phase.
This is when a new tool, TRIP, is used (Terminal Autónomo de Interface Pesada). This is a system which verifies weights at the slaughterhouse in which all of the data on the groups of pigs to be slaughtered is added. If the carcass is suitable, that is, if it has the minimum weight established in the standard, the process will move forward with the placement of the corresponding seal. On the other side, if the carcass is not suitable, TRIP will sound an alarm to let the workers know that the piece in question cannot bear the seal, won't be guaranteed under the Quality Standard and, therefore, will be sold without the Ibérico seal.
Once the groups assigned for the day have been completed, TRIP synchronizes the data with the ÍTACA, completing all of the information about the labels that have been applied and the pieces that were not deemed suitable. That information is passed along almost immediately to the plant to which the farmer sent the pigs. At this point, the hams in the production process are counted. The plant then enters the information into the system and verifies that it has received the correct pieces for eventual sale.
- Salting/rinsing: During this initial phase, the ham is placed in a container and covered with salt which is moist and reused in the same process until the hams are completely covered. This container is stored as many days as kilos weigh the ham to proceed to the wash, after which time they're rinsed off to remove excess salt and prepare for the next phase of the process.
- Resting: This phase is three months long. During this period, the hams are stored in a cold room, the temperature of which increases gradually from 2°C or 3°C to 15°C with a relative humidity of 80 or 90%.
- Natural drying area: During this phase, the ham loses moisture and beings to sweat (usually in summer) in a naturally-ventilated drying room which generally reaches a temperature of between 15°C and 18°C.
- Ageing: This is the final part of the process at the slaughterhouse, when the hams are left to rest for at least one year to ensure they have the quality of an Ibérico ham.
The final part of this process, the plants, are responsible for entering information about traceability generated in previous steps by repositioning and replacing any damaged seals.
Based on the information included in the ÍTACA, ASICI works with the relevant authorities and the Ministry to ensure compliance with the Quality Standard, which favors progress by those players that operate in coherence with it, intervening in situations where irregularities are identified. Through its field specialists, the Interprofessional has completed 1,950 product verifications from 350 brands.
Information for consumers
All of this information will be available for consumers via an app that provides details about the farm where the pigs were fattened, the date they were slaughtered, the location of the slaughterhouse, and the production time for each ham.
No specific launch date has been set, but it's expected to be available by Christmas 2018. "Never before has the consumer had access to so much information when purchasing an Ibérico ham," says ASICI. As a result, it won't be so easy for people to be taken for a ride and consumers will finally know when they're buying an authentic Ibérico ham.