Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hungarian Salami - A Call for Relevant Standards

These cute Mangalitsa piggies have long since been eaten.

A typical product made from Mangalitsa is salami. Salami is traditional cured product made from chopped (not ground!) meat. Mangalitsa Salami is special enough that Slow Food has even put it in their Hungarian Ark Of Taste.*

One might ask what makes traditional Hungarian salami taste better. They've codified Szeged winter salami, with allows everyone to see what's special about it. What's interesting is to see how it specifies things like age and weight. Those things directly determine the quality of the finished product:
For the production of Szeged winter salami, only the pork meat originating from large-weight pigs bred according to hundred-year-old traditions is used. [Large weight (LW) and traditionally bred (TB) pigs hereinafter: 'salami pigs'.] Great care is taken in purchasing ingredients of suitable quality. Contracts with breeders, the setting of quality parameters for TB/LW pigs as well as a premium price guarantee that the pigs available for slaughter are of the required quality and quantity. Pigs whose meat is used as raw material must be elder than 12 months and weighing more than 150, preferably 180 kg. Compared to other pork meat, the meat obtained from TB pigs is drier and contains more pigments, therefore it is a raw material of optimum quality for the traditional production of Szeged winter salami.

For the manufacture of the salami, pig half carcases obtained by pig slaughtering are used. They are properly processed, with the removal of skin, fat, head and feet.

Pig half carcases must be fit for consumption without exception in respect of food hygiene, and meet the current, valid legal requirements. Additionally, they are to meet the following quality requirements:
  • well-developed, full muscles,
  • compact texture,
  • warm red colour,
  • well bled,
  • properly processed,
  • neither PSE (pale soft exudative) nor DFD (dark, firm, dry)
  • neither damaged nor injured,
  • clean and free of contamination,
  • initial germ contamination level must be low.
All of that is generally in keeping with Austrian advice for producing cured products, yet the standards notably don't specify the breed, the finishing diet, keeping of the pigs, etc. - as the Spanish do (Spanish-language PDF) with Iberico. Here is a description of the Iberico requirements in English.

The result of such practical standards is that the consumer who buys the top grade product knows that it will taste better than the second grade, which will taste better than the lowest grade. The standards don't specify things that don't impact how the product will taste (e.g. "humanely raised" or "organic").

The promulgation of irrelevant standards creates an unfortunate situation: consumers - most of whom just want to buy good food at a low price - can't easily decide how to spend their money. E.g organic bacon costs a lot, but it doesn't necessarily taste good - because the organic standards are orthogonal to the things that determine fat quality.

I hope that in the future we have relevant food standards, and not faddish or politically-correct standards.

* Months ago, I requested that Slow Food consider adding Mangalitsa to their American Ark of Taste. They refused, because the Mangalitsa isn't a traditional US breed.

Of course, given that most domestic animals are post-Columbian imports to the New World, Slow Food is being quite loose with their standard. If there were really strict, approved foods in America would include acorns and bison. Cattle, pigs, goats, barley and wheat would all be verboten, due to their non-traditional and post-Columbian nature.

The situation gets a bit interesting where the Slow Food principles meet the world of commerce.

Heritage Foods USA "was formed in 2001 as the sales and marketing arm for Slow Food USA,"and generally sells meat from animals with some historical connection to the USA. Yet they make a glaring exception (which they must explain) for "American-Kobe" beef:
"American Kobe is one of the world’s most recognized meats. It would be a disservice to exclude American Kobe beef on a site dedicated to breed-specific foods."
That clearly creates a huge exception incompatible with Slow Food principles, and shows that people ignore irrelevant standards. Heritage Foods USA's stance is such that they could sell any high-quality breed-specific food product (e.g. Mangalitsa Salami), regardless of its non-traditional nature.


rsheridan6 said...

Did they specify that, to be American, a breed had to be indigenous? It seems that a breed that is unique to America, or was developed in America could be considered indigenous, even if it's descended from invaders. Sort of like how a New England accent is American, but not indigenous, while a Somali accent is not.

Including "American Kobe" in the "ark of taste" is a bit of a stretch, but since it is a mix of Wagyu with other breeds and was done in America, it's not completely unreasonable that they would qualify by a similar standard. If you mixed Mangalitsa with pink piggies and gave the result a catchy name, they would have to include you, unless they just don't like you. Or unless they think it takes time to become traditional. Like 30 years, for example.

Their standards seem self-consistent. Irrelevant to what's actually important, but self-consistent.

Heath said...

rsheridan6 -- Here's the first response from Slow Food's Jenny Trotter:

"Thanks for your email and call. The U.S. Ark Comittee is very familiar with the Mangalitsa hog. This hog, though, does not fit the U.S. Ark of Taste criteria. For one reason, as you mentioned, it is in recovery in the hands of the Hungarians and on their Ark of Taste. Also new imports to the U.S. are not eligible on the U.S. Ark (no matter how delicious!). The pigs on our Ark have had hundreds of years of American tradition."

They've made some odd decisions with the US Ark of Taste. The decision to include a population of feral hogs (Ossabaw Island swine) in the Ark seems like bad policy. You could theoretically give any isolated feral group the status of a breed and a slot in the Ark. E.g. Alaskan feral cats, eaten for generations by American hobos passing through Alaska. Isolated for generations from other American cats, and raised in the cold, they probably have unique organoleptic properties worth preserving.

You also wonder - given that the Ossabaw Island hogs haven't been raised by humans (except recently), how do they fit in to the U.S. Ark of Taste? Why don't other wild pigs belong in the Ark too?

I don't expect decisions about what goes into the U.S. Ark of Taste to be rational. Thankfully, it doesn't really impact me.

Moving on to "American Kobe" -- "American Kobe" isn't in the U.S. Ark of Taste. It is in the catalog of Heritage Foods USA, a company Heritage Foods USA was "formed in 2001 as the sales and marketing arm for Slow Food USA, a non-profit organization founded by Patrick Martins and dedicated to celebrating regional cuisines and products."

You have to distinguish between Slow Food and Heritage Foods USA. One is a foundation, another is a meat company.

Heritage Foods USA has decided that pleasing their customers by selling them a high-quality product that is neither Japanese nor American is the way to go. I'm happy they are so flexible. I doubt many care about them straying from their principles.

In general, I think the model of government or charity paying people to preserve uneconomic breeds is the right way to go. Trying to get people to eat heritage breeds that they ultimately don't want to eat can't work in the long term.

What's interesting is that most people probably think of Slow Food as the "good food" organization, when ultimately it is about traditional foods.

The Mangalitsa is not a traditional food in the USA - so we must count on no help from Slow Food, and perhaps even some resistance from the USA's Slow Food. E.g. if they perceive the rise of the Mangalitsa as a threat to the American Guinea Hog, then what? Would they classify the Mangalitsa as an invasive food, unwelcome on the American scene? It is all so silly - but potentially a possibility.

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