Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mangalitsa-Berkshire Cross Pork, Iberian Pig Breeding Programme (1999)

Crossbred Mangalitsa Hogs in Europe

We'll have pork from Mangalitsa and Mangalitsa-Berkshire (50%-50%) market hogs at the farmers market very soon.

It will be interesting to see what people prefer. In the future, we'll have 100%, 75% and 50% Mangalitsa market hogs. My guess a while back was that we'd be selling a lot of 75% Mangalitsa hogs. As in Europe, those would probably get described (by wholesalers or restaurants) as "Mangalitsa", while the 100% stuff would show up on menus as "purebred Mangalitsa".

Purebred Mangalitsa isn't for everyone.

We don't have to produce many 50% Mangalitsa hogs - unless there's demand for them. You need them in order to produce 50/50 females that can produce 75/25 market animals. The 50/50 males are a byproduct. If it is ever feasible to sex pig semen, it will make it possible to avoid producing pigs of the undesired sex. Those wanting to produce females for breeding will be able to avoid the production of unwanted males, and those wanting to produce barrows for fattening outdoors will be able to avoid females, who are harder to neuter than males.

Bazna swine - leaner than a Mangalitsa.

It is hard to know what to do with the 50/50 hogs - their very existence makes it hard to make the 75% and 100% Mangalitsa seem so special. But for many consumers, the 50-50 hog may be the most appropriate - instead of eating a hog from the 1920s (the Mangalitsa), the hog of the 1940s (the 50% Mangalitsa) may be a better fit. Perhaps the right thing to do is to come up with a name (e.g. Bazna) and market those 50-50 hogs that way. Don't even bring up the word "Mangalitsa" in conjunction with them.

Experience from Spain suggests purebred Mangalitsa won't find a huge market. I found a document on the web about the Iberian pig breeding program. It starts on page 510. The Of course, the Spanish breeding system has been modernized, so things have probably changed quite a bit.

Like the other document, it mentions that the super-lardy hairless Iberian varieties are so uneconomic they are in danger of disappearing. The best hope for them is using them to produce crossbred market hogs. That's similar to the Pietrain's role. A super-muscled breed, the Pietrain is so lean that most people don't want to eat it. Its major role is in crossbreeding programs, like the hairless Iberico.

Pietrain - famously bad eating.

The fact that a breed is mostly good for crossbreeding doesn't mean that it is doomed. The Iberian breed is doing well, despite it being used in crossbreeding programs. If the Mangalitsa achieves anwhere near the success in America that the Iberico has achieve in Spain, even if it is via crossbreeding, the breed will be on very stable footing.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mangalitsa Is Lardier and Tastier than Most Iberico

Lampiño: Best Tasting Iberico Variety, Lardiest Carcasses, Least Profligate

There's a nice article, "Iberian Pig Production: The Problems of Success", available online. You can get the full text here. This is very practical information for anyone wanting to finish Mangalitsa outdoors on mast. The "problems" the title alludes to are the apparent contradictions I've been exploring recently.

This article, among other things, explains the breeding programs and the various feeding programs - what, how much and when. Some may be surprised to find the emphasis on feeding things like antioxidants and metals like copper, to improve fat quality. That's completely in keeping with the Spanish achieving quality and containing costs with science. The use of farrowing crates (also mentioned) greatly reduces the cost of piglets, by ensuring that more of them avoid death by crushing.

I've heard the Mangalitsa described as better tasting than Iberico - by an expert who has eaten a lot of both. I was skeptical.

Having read the article, I learned there are different strains of Iberico, and some are leaner and more profligate than others. The Mangalitsa sounds a lot like the "Lampiño" (hairless) strain - super lardy, not very profligate and good at fattening on pasture. There's a picture of it at the top.

Here's a Spanish-language page on the different strains of Iberian Blacks, including the Lampiño (Spanish and English translation). That Lampiño looks like a Mangalitsa sow that's lost all her hair; the proportions look roughly the same. E.g. short back, small feet and short legs (the better to carry all the fat):

Mangalitsa: Incredible Tasting, Lardy Carcass, Low Profligacy

In the past, most Iberico I've seen have looked a bit longer. Those guys are so long, I you wonder how their back or legs can hold up. My back hurts when I look at them:

These Iberico look like they belong in a "Far Side" Cartoon

I've seen other comparisons of the Mangalitsa to the Iberian swine;

The Mangalica has the highest percentage of fat among pigs raised in Spain. This fat content makes its hams and loins mature very slowly into a ham with exceptionally rich aromas and flavor. Mangalica production is very limited...
One reason Mangalitsa production is so limited as that almost nobody is willing to pay for the fat, in the same way that there's not much purebred Wagyu production (relative to the Wagyu-cross production).

Not all Mangalitsa products get made slowly. Spitzbart makes his cured Mangalitsa products relatively quickly. The hogs were raised mostly indoors, then finished outside. He wet cures his meat, which gets the job done without trouble.

I love watching the hogs run, especially the really fat one.

Mr. Faul, one of the most innovative Mangalitsa breeders, proposed making mini salamis from his Mangalitsa. That's not a traditional "artisanal" product - but it would be easily produced and marketed, allowing him to make some money off his hogs.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Seattle" Wrote about Me and the Pigs

With my favorite Pigs

The magazine "Seattle" wrote about me and the pigs. I'm happy they noticed!

Wooly Pigs' herd is expanding. The next big step is selling more Mangalitsa across the USA, particulary the East Coast.

Our move of the nucleus herd to the Midwest allow us to better serve the whole US, while our Washington operation allows us to serve the West Coast. Sold to the right people the right way, Mangalitsa is a product like no other.

If you want to distribute Mangalitsa pork or fatten and sell Mangalitsa hogs in your area, please contact me at

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes

There's a new book by Jennifer McLagan, "Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes" - available from Amazon.

I've not read the book.

The chapter on pork fat is entitled, "pork fat: The King". In America, Mangalitsa, finished in the best possible way, provides the king of pork fats.

Mangalitsa Sow's Loin

Of the various animals whose fat we consume, pork is special due to the amazing control that we have over the fat quality. By raising special breeds of hogs (lard-type hogs) in special ways, we can produce some of the world's best fat. This is better understood in Europe than in the USA.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mangalitsa: The Spanish Connection

Mangalitsa pork travels 1800 miles for processing.

I recently posted about Mr. Toth saving the Mangalitsa.

I simplified things too much. Here's a more complete version.

After the fall of communism in Hungary, the Mangalitsa pigs were in danger of extinction. As unprofitable pigs, people couldn't afford to keep them. Mr. Toth was working in Spain for Mr. Moisés Olmos, the founder of Jamones Segovia.

The Mangalitsa is one of the few breeds of pig like the Iberico. Mr. Olmos, an Iberico processor, recognized this, and most importantly, was willing to invest money in Hungary in order to save the breed.

Their firm swept in and gathered up all the Mangalitsa they could and started raising them for the Spanish market. Mr. Toth's company handless the pig production, breed preservation, etc. Mr. Olmos's, the processing. Mr. Olmos is an amazing innovator: not only did he save the Mangalitsa, but his company is the first company to export USDA-inspected jamon iberico to the USA. He's been honored for this in Spain (Spanish or English translation). They are now even selling Mangalitsa products in Japan.

Had Olmos and Toth not saved the Mangalitsa, the breed would be extinct. The Mangalitsa wouldn't be in America and Red Mountain Farms wouldn't be raising the best pork in America.

A few points:
  • Carbonero el Mayor, Spain is 1800* miles from Debrecen. Those pig parts are moving across nearly all of Western Europe to reach the Spanish processing. In the minds of Europeans, 1800 miles is, a huge distance - they might as well be producing those pigs in Russia.
  • Until recently, it always seemed funny to me that it was the Spanish who saved the Mangalitsa. Why not the Austrians, Germans, Italians or French? They all have cured meat industries and are a lot closer. Austria in particular has very close ties to Hungary, due to their shared history.
Now that I've been in the Mangalitsa business for a while, it all makes sense:

Although most countries in Western Europe are closer to Hungary than Spain - and many of those countries have big (and in some cases, world-famous) cured meat sectors - but they lacked the expertise and quality-focus of the Spanish.

The Spanish firms produce the world's best cured pork products. At times, they use methods that seem at odds with the free-range finish of their best hogs - but if you know pork production, they make sense. The Spanish are the ones who produce the best stuff wholesale; they need the raw material.

Having studied this story and attempted to market Mangalitsa in America for a while, a few things are clear:
  • Had I just imported Iberico hogs to the USA, instead of Mangalitsa, I probably would have had a much easier time. There's been so much Iberico PR that, as the sole importer, I'd be sitting pretty.
  • Mr. Olmos's firm, Pick or any other European processor will probably begin processing Mangalitsa in America before any established American firms - and that includes the "artisanal" ones. Just as the Spanish were the first to seize the Mangalitsa opportunity, Europeans will probably beat Americans to the punch. They've got the expertise, quality focus, capital, and long investment horizon to make it work.

*The Spanish buying up the Hungarian production is an example of a "buy quality" policy (as opposed to "buy local") saving an entire breed of pig. If the Spanish had insisted on sourcing their pigs closer to home they'd not only have been stuck with inferior pork, but the Mangalitsa breed would have died out. Buying locally produced goods - particularly those that travel well - usually means missing out on the best. Sometimes buying locally means buying mediocre.

Wild Salmon and Iberico Production Innovations

"Wild salmon" start here.

In a recent post, I explored some of the details of modern iberico production. Not surprisingly, as demand for iberico products has soared, there's been an economic incentive to produce as much iberico as possible. Producers have responded by using a variety of innovations, some controversial. As described in this article:
The extensive pig production in Spain is traditionally characterised by: the use of the Iberian pig, an autochthonous breed perfectly integrated into the environment in which they have developed; a long duration of the productive cycle for about 23–24 months; a high level of animal welfare level, specially in the fattening process with freedom of movement and feeding base on natural sources: acorns and grass, and an equilibrated “dehesa” agro-forestry system where this activity has been developed. Nowadays, the introduction of more intensificated methods due to the increasing demand led to important changes, such as: the shortening of the productive cycle (10–12 months); freeing from the territorial base; changes during the fattening period, fattening with mixed feed and less animal freedom. All these facts may implicate a loss of the animal welfare condition. These circumstances lead us to question it from an ethical point of view.

A key limiting factor is the efficiency of the Iberian sows at weaning pigs. The obvious response is to run a hybrid system: run the breeding stock with modern methods and get the most Iberian pigs on the ground, then finish them with more or less traditional methods that bring a high price.

The methods designed to produce the most weaned pigs seem to be in conflict with the free-range finishing that some of them experience*, but it is a direct consequence of pig biology and consumer demand.

The same thing has happened with "wild salmon".

The best salmon is wild salmon. It tastes the best and costs much more than farmed salmon. But - and this isn't well known - a lot of those "wild salmon" start their lives in fish hatcheries. After they are mature and ready to go out in the world (an analogous stage for the pig would be a started pig), they enter a more tradtional production system (the ocean, for Iberian swine, the Dehesa).

The more you look at it, the more sense it makes. With both salmon and Iberico, there's the potential to produce many offspring in a generation, but in the wild (or primitive production systems), a good fraction of them aren't going to make it.

Whether or not it is ultimately good or bad that people use these innovations, it is clear that they allow us to produce a lot more super-premium food without losing on quality. A lot of innovation in food (e.g. TV dinners) is anti-quality, but the ones that impact reproduction efficiency aren't.

The contrast between how the animals start out (controlled environment geared to maximum production) versus how they wind up is so surprising. If you saw only the start or the finish, you'd never guess what was going on.

* There are too many Iberico hogs each year to finish them free-range.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

An Email from The Savior of the Mangalitsa

Peter Toth is the man responsible for saving the Mangalitsa breed from extinction.

In the chaotic period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Mangalitsa almost vanished. The socialist government had supported the breed for decades, but with the end of socialism, there wasn't any money. The natural thing for people to do was to kill the last few pigs and make kolbasz out of them.

Mr. Toth's firm, Olmos és Tóth Kft, bought all the stock they could and started producing for the Spanish market. It was natural that the Spanish processors would buy the Mangalitsa raw material, due to the Mangalitsa being very similar (but more fatty) than their own Iberico.

I sent him an email about Red Mountain Farm in California, and he reported that he's very happy with their success. The Mangalitsa is also doing very well in the other new market, Japan.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Iberico Extensive Systems, Pig Spaying, Etc.

Red Mountain Farm's Mangalitsa live the natural lifestyle

One interesting issue that can come up when folks like Red Mountain Farm run their Mangalitsa outside is unwanted contact with wild boar. For Red Mountain Farm, this isn't an issue: their Mangalitsa and Mangalitsa x Berkshire hogs are barrows (castrated males).

Anyone that puts a cycling female outdoors in an area with wild hogs has a problem. A wild boar will do what boars do best: he'll break in, fight off any other domestic boars (potentially killing them) and service his favorite females. The males have been naturally selected to do this - it is their only job.

All the females have been bred, so it's OK to relax.

I have yet to talk to anyone whose own domestic boars have won against a wild boar interloper. The wild boar are faster, tougher and meaner. Their small size doesn't matter; one lucky shot with their tusks and that's it. In the wild, the winning boar gets to service many females, potentially producing hundreds of descendants a season. The loser may not get to procreate at all. Natural selection ensures tha the average wild boar can defeat a commercial boar, who has been selected for carcass traits.

Unwanted breeding of domestic swine with wild boar has terrible consequences for the producer:
  • Wild boar transmit diseases to the domestic swine. That's always bad, no matter the disease. Depending on how serious the disease is, you may have to depopulate (kill all mammals on your farm), or institute permanent changes to manage a disease that you can't eradicate.
  • A bred market female is worth less than an open one. She also wastes energy producing a litter of pigs. Even if you have her farrow the pigs, they won't have carcasses like your other pigs.
In the old days, pigs spent most of their time outside, in remote places with constant access to wild boar. Some pigs still live that way in Livermore, CA. In contrast, almost all other domestic hogs are kept separate from wild animals, which reduces the transmission of disease and completely stops uncontrolled mating.

The Spanish who finish some Iberian hogs the old-fashoned way solve this problem the old-fashioned way: they spay the females. Neutering a female is trickier than neutering a male - you have to dig around in her insides. Here's a (gory) set of photos showing how it is done in a modern setting.

I find the Spanish production methods fascinating; some details are natural (hogs foraging outside), but due to the presence of natural things (wild boar) and a desire to preserve the environment, they are forced to confine and mutilate the animals more than modern producers who arguably do things less naturally. In order to economically produce acorn-fattened hogs, as described in the case study, the Iberico bellota producers:
  • keep the hogs indoors for 9-12 months. Confining the hogs takes the pressure off the landscape and allows it to recover. It is cheaper too. The hogs aren't, as many assume, roaming free their entire long life.
  • neuter the females
  • ring the market hogs, which prevents them from rooting up the oak savanna.
Another thing Iberico producers do is use a lot of antibiotics. As a Spanish guy in the business explained to me, part of Spain's culture is to liberally medicate people (and pigs). With pigs, you even treat animals at risk of becoming sick, takes you out of the premium "no-antibiotics" category (and keeps you out of markets like Whole Foods). Spain doesn't have that market segment at all.

Although the farm in that case study farrows outside (with high piglet mortality), other Iberico producers use things like farrowing crates and gestation crates - things that, in addition to the antibiotics, prevent the meat from ever being sold in Whole Foods. You name it: Albertsons, 7-11 and your mom and pop grocery will sell Fermin's product before Whole Foods.

Using farrowing crates and gestation crates is at odds with how Iberico production was done in the past. The innovations are controversial. Things are such that now, if you choose their iberico bellota, you choose taste and sustainability over:
  • minimal mutilation
  • minimal confinement
  • maximal natural behaviors
  • no-hormones, no-antibiotics
  • high piglet survivability (via farrowing crates)
The farrowing crate issue is very interesting. The goal of crates is to prevent sows from crushing pigs - a major cause of death in any pig operation. The pro-welfare argument of crates takes the view of the piglets, saying it is better for their mom to be confined a bit so that less of them get crushed to death.

Although many Iberico sows farrow in huts, some farrow in crates, like the one pictured just below. Some even use gestation crates too, which means a sow is confined her whole life (which consists alternately of gestation and farrowing, gestation being longer).

It is hard to see how a farm can use gestation crates and not be called a factory farm. If Iberico ever becomes associated with gestation crates, I think they are in big trouble.

Iberico Sow in a Farrowing Crate

I've read plenty of remarks like:
Unfortunately, heritage pork breeds are not suited for the intensive farming techniques being used nowadays, and some of the older breeds are in danger of being lost forever.
Iberico Sows in Gestation Crates

Unfortunately (for the ones that get put into gestation crates), heritage breeds like the Iberico can be raised intensively. The producer who built the confinement facility for Iberico pictured above did it because it is possible and it pays. As a result of it being possible to produce Iberico reasonably economicaly (due to innovations like crates), the breed has steadily increasing numbers.

The Iberico was never in trouble because it works well extensively; it was in trouble because people wanted cheap, lean pork, which the Iberico doesn't produce.

Seeing the Iberico sows in crates shocked me. Until I did some research, I'd figured it wasn't done.

Feral hogs aren't ringed, so they naturally destroy things.

Back to spaying: I find it fascinating that such an involved procedure was once very common. If you go far enough back in time, you can read about sow-gelders (professional pig spayers):
22 August 1730 We hear that at the late Assizes held at Bridgwater, an indictment was preferred against a sow-gelder, for attempting to spay his wife; but she refused to prosecute, and acknowledged her forgiveness of him, and desired the Court would do the same: However, the Court remanded him back to prison, and, for the sake of the good women in general, ordered him to remain there till he could give 400l. security for his good behaviour during life...
While looking for information on sow gelding, I found a modern day sow-gelder. Here are photos (gory) showing a guy spaying a female pig in Vietnam.

Sow from 1904

I don't know why they spay them in Vietnam, but I suspect it has to do with them thinking the way we thought back in 1910. E.g. "Swine in America" from 1910 says:
Open sows running with other stock hogs are a source of great annoyance and where more than two or three are kept there is scarcely a time when some of their number are not in heat and continually chasing the others thus keeping them in a worried fevered condition extremely prejudicial to growth or fattening. If all are properly sprayed this is avoided the hogs are quiet and restful and much time annoyance and feed are saved.

All feeders agree that no animals in the swine herd feed more kindly and profitably than spayed sows and there are no buyers who would not as soon or sooner have them than barrows when they would not buy a lot of open sows at any price. An open sow when fat of the same dimensions externally as a spayed sow or a barrow generally weighs from ten to 20 pounds less.

To the feeder the buyer or the butcher unspaycd sows are usually in one way or another a cheat as they may weigh more than they are worth from having a litter of pigs in them or may be utterly destitute of inside fat from having recently suckled pigs; in either case they are of less value than their appearance would indicate. Spayed sows are not troublesome to their mates are as good as they look for feeding or marketing and command in all markets such prices as are paid for none but first class stock.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Red Mountain Farm's Mangalitsa

Red Mountain Farm's Mangalitsa Get Personal Care From Kylan Hoover

There's an article in the SF Chronicle about lard and Mangalitsa pigs. The pictures are really great.

Back in February, I contacted Michael Ruhlman about wanting to find someone in California who could finish Mangalitsa and market them in the Bay Area.

Red Mountain Farm's David Smith with their
Mangalitsa and Mangalitsa x Berkshire Crosses

Michael via his blog, helped me to get in touch with Kylan Hoover and David Smith. Kylan and his team moved very quickly and acquired their first load of pigs. They picked up their second load about a month ago.

I'm astounded at how smart those guys are - they were able to recognize the opportunity, take action and follow up. Only seven months later, it is looking they made the right move; soon they'll have Mangalitsa available at fancy grocery stores - Star Grocery and Bi-Rite Market. Those names don't sound special if you don't know the Bay Area - but they are exactly the fancy places that should be carrying Mangalitsa.

It will be fascinating to see how Bay Area consumers respond to Red Mountain Farm's Mangalitsa. I'm very happy that Red Mountain is killing some and getting Mangalitsa into peoples' mouths.

With the expansion of Wooly Pigs into the Midwest, I'm hoping that we can find more folks like Kylan Hoover to finish hogs on the East Coast or in the South.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book: Dry-Cured Meat Products

Google Books has a preview up for Toldrá's 2004 book "Dry-cured Meat Products". Dr. Toldrá is a Research Professor and Head of the Meat Science Laboratory at Instituto de Agroquimica y Tecnologia de Alimentos (CSIC).

A lot of that information is hard to find in English. The Spanish make a lot of money producing the world's best pigs and cured products. As a result, they've got well-funded research institutes staffed by scientists investigating what it takes to produce great cured pork economically.

We have similar institutes in America, but given what's economically important, they study things like frozen pizzas. That's not meant to denigrate America - we've just got different priorities. Dr. Toldra was even educated in the USA - he's chosen to apply his education to studying one of Spain's economically important and traditional foods.

The book covers a lot of detailed topics - e.g. how the sex of the pig impacts the products and what it takes to cure frozen meat properly. It isn't a recipe book. Here's some of the table of contents:

Amazon has the book.

There's also a funny interview with Dr. Toldra. It is in Spanish, so here is a google translation. It is very interesting stuff - e.g. you can see that they were able to determine what was making so many hams go bad while curing (a common reason given by Austrian Mangalitsa producers for why they wet-cure), and then change things so as to cut down on losses:

His research focuses on a sector as traditional as in the curing of pork, especially the prosciutto. Can you make something research and technological development in a sector as based on tradition?

There is a very clear example of the contributions of technological development. Years ago there was a great loss of hams in the creek when it was discovered that many had internal putrefaction. The cove is done to verify the quality of ham towards the end of the curing process. This junción click on the bones, a very delicate ham, with a long, thin instrument [also called cove]. Now we know that when the piece was subjected to sudden movements, unions will break bones and small openings through which they could enter external contamination. All this is compounded further if there was any interruption in the cold chain. The incorporation of cooling a strict throughout the chain and a more careful handling of the pieces now avoids such losses by cove. That is a very clear example of technological development.

In that same interview, he mentions the USA's country ham.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fanciest Place to Eat Mangalitsa

I've eaten Mangalitsa quite a few places. I'll probably never eat at the Dolder Grand Hotel (pictured above). When reading the article about their reopening and serving of Mangalitsa, I was reminded that the Swiss have done a lot, considering the size of their country, to try to preserve the Mangalitsa.

They have an organization that tries to keep the Mangalitsa breed going. A bunch of my sows were sired by Swiss boars, so I've benefited from their efforts.

Iron Chef Hungary

I saw this nice blog about people doing a cooking competition with Mangalitsa.

I really like how the judges look. So serious:

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hormones, Growth Promotants, Antibiotics and Ethics

A lot of people want to eat animals that haven't been fed antibiotics, hormones or growth promotants. American pork producers, including Cargill, one of the biggest, respond to these preferences, Here's a bit of a press release:
Cargill Meat Solutions has launched a new, all-natural, antibiotic-free pork brand. Dubbed Good Nature, the new pork line is sourced from Midwest family farm-raised hogs that are never administered antibiotics, growth stimulants or hormones. Moreover, Cargill says it also maintains strict natural standards during processing of the new pork line, which is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients.

“When you’re good at something, people say you’re a ‘natural,’” said Joe Linot, pork marketing manager, Cargill. “We’re a natural at natural pork. Our Good Nature pork allows the quality and flavor of pork to be the focus of consumers’ eating experiences – without ever using antibiotics or growth hormones.”
Cargill has a terrible image with some consumers - but they do respond to customer demands. E.g. they compete with Niman Ranch, and have beaten them on meat quality. Now they are producing natural pork.

Maybe one day Cargill will produce organic pork, or even Mangalitsa pork. If enough people demand it, or if technology makes it possible for them to do it cheaply, I expect they will.


Growth hormones are illegal. But growth promotants like beta agonists are legal, and the sort of things that consumers think of as "hormones" - the way some people think of antimicrobials as antibiotics, even though they are different things.

We learned in Austria that quickly grown meat doesn't taste good. If a pork producer cares about meat quality, that's a good reason to avoid growth hormones and growth promotants.

Yet "no hormones" means none at all. There are a lot of hormones - just look at the list for humans (which isn't so different for pigs). Are all hormones bad? Can they possibly all be avoided?

E.g. melatonin is an antioxidant found in animals and plants. Some plants contain a lot of melatonin. You have to figure that intentional or not, all pigs are going to eat naturally occurring melatonin, even the ones sold as "hormone-free".

A typical hormone given to sows is oxytocin. It helps them to farrow by inducing contractions. Administering oxytocin to sows that need it is humane - and not giving it is inhumane. Not giving oxytocin might cause a sow unnecessary suffering or even death.

In humans, oxytocin has a half-life of 3 minutes in the blood. Even if a sow was given an injection of oxytocin and you ate her, you'd not be impacted by it: there couldn't be much in the sow's bloodstream by the time you killed her, and any of it that you consumed would be destroyed by your GI tract.

Yet the "no hormone" policy has an economic impact: a very good tasting sow raised in an otherwise unobjectionable way will get marketed with the conventional sows. The producer and the consumer lose out, due to the "no hormone" standard being too broad.

The normal way of ensuring that animals given antibiotics or hormones don't get marketed as antibiotic-free or hormone-free is to notch their ears. When you give them their first shot that matters, you cut off part of their ear (this only has to happen once). Later on, it is easy to distinguish the clean ones from the tainted ones, just by checking the ear.

It seems downright cruel to give a sow having a tough time farrowing a shot of oxytocin followed up by cutting off part of her ear. If nothing else, the next time you need to get that sow to do something, she's going to be thinking about you hurting her.


The situation with anitbiotics is far more complicated and interesting. Here's an interesting article about antibiotics and animals. I like it because it rationally discusses an issue about which most people are merely emotional and uninformed.

There's a misconception that animals given antibiotics are given them up until slaughter. That's not true. There are laws about this. There's a withdrawal period, which allows the chemical residues to leave the animal's system.

There's another misconception that farm animals are given antibiotics because they are sick. Producers primarily give animals antibiotics because it helps them to gain weight faster. The Austrian wisdom is that quick gain is bad. If you want the best meat, you'll avoid sub-therapeutic antibiotics.

Looking at therapeutic antibiotics. Forcing animals to live without any antibiotics is inhumane, just as denying treatment to sick humans is inhumane. Countries with primitive agriculture, where they don't use antibiotics, have less healthy animals and humans. Catastrophic outbreaks are more common. It is horrible to think of people and animals regularly dying of infections - but that's exactly what happens when you don't have antibiotics.

Of course, feeding antibiotics subtherepeutically, to get extra efficiency, isn't medically necessary or advisable from a meat quality perspective. One can imagine a world where we'd use the minimum amount of antibiotics required to humanely raise animals.

Consider the Producer

If one is participating in natural pork program like Cargill's no-hormone, no-antibiotic one mentioned above, and you animals start to get sick, what do you do? In the old days, they'd get sick and either make it or not - there weren't any drugs.

These days, you could avoid treating them, in the hopes of being able to market your animals at the premium price. Or you can treat the sick ones and market them differently.

There's problems with both of those solutions.
  • If you avoid treatment, that's inhumane and wasteful. More animals will get sick, you'll lose money.
  • If you just treat the sick ones, you have to somehow identify them. How do you do that economically? You generally can't. If you go in and give one a shot (and notch its ear, so it gets marketed with the tainted animals), he's probably already spread the disease to some other animals. You'll be going in there and giving more shots.
In practice, vets advise metaphylaxis - you medicate all the ones at risk and eliminate the pathogens once and for all. Sure, some healthy animals get meds - but they'd probably wind up needing them sooner or later. Medicating all the animals before many of them suffer is arguably the most humane way to go - but it costs the producer the most if he's participating in a no-antibiotics program.

Of course, the time when animals tend to get sick is when they are young. Any meds given then will be long out of their system by the time they are marketed. Yet if they receive antibiotics, they must be marketed in the conventional market. All this is suboptimal - in many cases, society is losing out on some good meat that is imperceptibly different from the no-antibiotics meat.

The incentives to cheat are huge. Disreputable producers of "no-antibiotic" products can earn much higher profits just by cheating. Honest producers are at a competitive disadvantage. There was a case in Germany where people sold conventionally produced pigs as organic pigs (German article), potentially earning 250,000 euros from the fraud. It reminds me of the famous low-fat donut producer who was relabeling normal donuts, making a fortune in the process.

A lot of pork producers don't want to produce no-hormone, no-antibiotic pork. The premium for the special stuff isn't high enough to make up for the extra bother and risk. One can imagine that having engaged in metaphylactic antibiotic use to fight diseases (therapeutic use) for decades, they'd be bothered to see their hogs get sick and then face the quandry of either cheating, medicating and losing money or not medicating and seeing the pigs suffer.

The Role of the Conventional Market

If there was no conventional market at all, sick animals in need of meds would have to be euthanized. Sows having difficult pregnancies would either die after suffering or make it after suffering, perhaps losing more piglets due to not receiving oxytocin. The ability of the extremely efficient conventional pork market to soak up the unwanted byproducts of "no hormone, no antibiotic" production saves some animals from suffering or pointless euthanization.

The existence of the conventional market keeps the costs of "no-hormone, no-antibiotic" meat cheap, in the same way that the market for chops keeps the price of picnic shoulders very low. People who eat the fancy stuff should be happy that not everyone insists on eating the fancy stuff.

Animal Byproducts

A lot of hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat programs require that animals not eat animal byproducts. You'll often read about them receiving all-vegetarian diets. For cows, that makes sense, but for pigs, chickens and other omnivores - humans included - it seems wrong to me, because it isn't natural.

Pigs love to eat meat. That includes bugs, rodents, birds, other pigs, etc. Traditional pig production - used to produce some of the most expensive hams in the world - means having pigs run around and eat what they find. Carrion is a favorite. Just as most people like to eat meat, so do pigs. Little pigs, in particular, need high protein, high fat diets to grow.

If you can't feed your weaner pigs blood or other animal proteins, you've got to feed them whey. Whey costs a lot, which is probably why Cargill's no-hormone no-antibiotic press release doesn't say "100% vegetarian" - they've decided that it would cost too much. They are almost certainly feeding their pigs bloodmeal and fat from pigs and cows.

In Closing

I recently had some pigs get sick. We tried just giving shots to the ones that needed treatment, but in the end engaged in metaphylaxis (medicating all at-risk pigs). I wish I'd gone that way from the start - it would have been more humane.

Ethically, Metaphylaxis is very interesting, because it shows that no-antibiotic programs can lead to less humane meat production by creating incentives that work against animal welfare.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I saw an article about Speck in Tyrol. It reminded me of the Wiesners in Austria. The Wiesners raise pigs and process them at home into Speck. They process all the parts into Speck - loin, belly, ham, shoulder, jowl, etc.

I don't think the guys in Tyrol raise Mangalitsa, because the article describes the Speck as being just 2 inches thick. As you can see in the video below, the Mangalitsa belly is a lot thicker.

Another thing - the author doesn't mention how the guys raise their pigs. That's too bad - how the hog's get raised really impacts the quality of the raw material. Some people might read that article and try making Speck from inappropriate pork. Here is an article about how to raise pigs that will make decent Speck.

For the Mangalitsa producer, the model is simple: produce very fat pigs, then cut them up, wet cure them, smoke them and then let the product ripen. When it is done, vacuum pack it and stick it in your cellar. Here is a document that explains the different traditional Austrian methods, including wet curing.

Here's what the final product looks like:

Here's Christoph making Speck at home:

I like that video of him doing it at home because it is clear that you can do this stuff in a normal kitchen.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Lettuce and Wild Hogs

I saw this interesting news report about violent measures lettuce growers are taking to keep wild hogs and other wild animals out of the lettuce.

Vegetarians and other consumers probably imagine that eating vegetables is somehow good for wildlife - when in reality, the high margins that lettuce producers earn (particularly organic lettuce producers) motivate them to take a thorough and brutal approach to controlling wildlife incursions.

Some of the requirements imposed on the producers sound ridiculous:

Fresh Express, with 41 percent of the bagged greens market, demands a mile between farm fields and feedlots for cattle instead of the agreement's recommended 400 feet. The company also requires that a field intruded on by a wild pig be kept idle for two years.

That's such a huge penalty that you have to figure that if a guy does see a wild hog in his field, he'll claim he didn't see it.

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.

Iberico and Consumer Perceptions

It is very interesting to see how consumers respond to Iberico.

In this article, you've got someone comparing the Italian offerings to the Iberico. The assessment always goes the same: Italian < Iberico:

I taste my way up the scale. The prosciuttos are delicious, but the darker serrano is gamier, more complex. The iberico cuts, though, with their deep, rich, nutty, aromatic flavor that resonates in the mouth, make me forget the hams that came before. The glistening wine-red bellota slices are edged with fat the color of old ivory; the fat — more prominent in the paleta — seems to melt on the tongue. After I swallow, the flavor hums in my mouth for minutes.

So, is this ham that much better than other hams? Yes. Even the less expensive regular iberico, at $99.99 a pound, is light-years above its Spanish and Italian cousins. Indeed, the much-anticipated arrival of the bellota iberico has one happy side effect for me: It makes me feel less guilty about splurging on the regular iberico — after all, it’s almost a bargain, right?

If I was an Italian producer (or just an Italian chauvinist), I'd be cringing. With the introduction of Iberico, foodies will be making these comparisons. The Italian stuff will always come up short, because genetics are the limiting factor.

For reasons I've already mentioned, the Italians can't easily increase the quality of their products. It will be very interesting to see what, if anything, they do to respond to the challenge. E.g. are the Italians going to go back to raising lard-type hogs?

In the long-term, I'm wondering if the Italian brand is going to take a hit.

In the meat processing world, you've got plenty of people making cured products. Some of them are ethnic Italians, some are not - but most of them have chosen to brand their company Italian - by using the Italian language, Italian colors, and making products with Italian names (whether or not those products are like what you actually purchase anywhere in Italy).

In the meat world, "Italian" is codeword for "we don't suck," just as "Northern Italian restaurant" means "we serve fancy Italian food without a red-checker tablecloth." This explains why a "Northern Italian" restaurant serves food that you might not find in Tuscany, Trento, Friuli, etc. The point isn't to accurately duplicate the cuisine of a particular region (which is probably impossible due to the lack of ingredients), but to convince people to open their wallets.

So it will be interesting to see what happens when future entrepreneurs start small meat-curing operations. Will they be calling them things like "La Querica" ("The Oak")and "Boccolone"? Or will they give them Spanish names like "El Roble" ("The Oak")? Or will any of the "Italian" companies rebrand as Spanish?

I don't mean any disrespect to La Querica or Boccolone. I'm merely citing them as examples of smaller, newer meat-curing operations that have chosen to brand their company and products Italian.