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Pigs fly east as Asians discover ham

6 February 2008

MADRID – Japan is the latest country to fall in love with one of Spain’s top gastronomic delicacies, jamón ibérico or Iberian ham. Combined sales of ham and other pork products reached EUR 7 million last year, a business that more and more Spanish companies are taking a closer look at.

"For us this is not a fad, but an emerging market. What we need to do now is to spread information about the product there," says Luis Sanz, director general of Ibéricos de Raza, a firm from Guijuelo (Salamanca), who settled in Japan two years ago.

The Japanese prepare the meat differently, with special sauces, grilled, in soups or inside croquettes. There are also courses to teach food professionals how to slice correctly. Recently, two Japanese restaurateurs who won a ham-slicing contest were taken to Jabugo, Huelva, the heartland of Spain’s best porkers.

In Japan, Spanish pork products come with a tag that customers can read to learn how the pig lived, what it ate and when it was sacrificed. These tags explain how the happiest hogs live out in open pastures called dehesas, where they feed exclusively on acorns. It is unclear how impressed the Japanese are with this kind of lifestyle, however, considering that their famous Kobe beef cattle live on beer and sake and receive soothing massages to improve their tenderness. (The price: around EUR 200 a kilo.)

"It is hard to make it into their market because their sanitary regulations are very strict," Sanz points out. Meanwhile, Santiago Martín of Embutidos Fermín – so far the only Iberian ham company with a presence in the United States – sells frozen ham cuts in Japan and ribs in South Korea.

But all eyes are now trained on China, where the paperwork for the legal import of Iberian pork products is being prepared. Unfortunately for Spanish businesses, authorisation will come too late for the Beijing Olympics, which would have been an excellent showcase.

"Around 150 companies are interested in exporting to China," says Martín. "The Chinese have already been on a visit to inspect our facilities."

So will Spain be left without enough of its finest Iberian pigs with so much export in sight? Each year three million Iberian hogs are slaughtered in Spain, of which only 350,000 are raised on acorns. There are not enough dehesas for many more than that. Elena Diéguez of the Spanish Association of Iberian Pig Breeders thinks it should not be a problem in a country where breeders have for years operated within extremely tight margins. "If 20 firms could sell 1,000 products in Japan, the market would be reactivated."

"If demand goes up, so will the price," agrees Manuel Maldonado from Alburquerque. "But this is a luxury product at a very reasonable price. How much is a kilo of baby eels or caviar?" A kilo of Iberian ham now costs EUR 50.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / ELISA SILIÓ 2008]

Subject: Spanish news