The continuing American economic recession hasn’t seemed to slow down what has been a growing trend in the meat industry – the production and sale of high-end meat products. What started in the beef industry as a movement toward high-end meats brought beef like Kobe steak from Japan to the United States, as well as Kobe-style products made here.

Likewise, pork is stepping up to the plate. Sales of high-end pork and ham have been exploding in the US ever since the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service gave its blessing to Spanish ham-processing plants in 2005, and allowed importing of Jamon (Spanish hams) here.

While Spanish Iberico hams and Italian prosciutto are thought by many to be the finest ham and pork products in the world, American ham and pork-makers are not being outdone by their European competitors. “Artisan” American ham and pork manufacturers are making their own versions of Spanish Iberico and Italian prosciuitto, which many US consumers consider to be as fine as the products from Europe.

Iberico is unique

Raul Martin, export manager for Fermin brand Iberico and Serrano Spanish ham products and the company’s US sales manager, works in New York and brings Fermin products into the US. He says the world-famous Iberico hams are reaching a growing market in America. “The Iberico pig is a breed found only in Spain on the Iberian Peninsula,” Martin says. “It’s black and lean. The Iberico’s extra fat causes the unique marbling found in its meat that makes its taste and texture so wonderful.”

The top-quality Iberico pig for ham manufacturing is the Iberico de Bellota – bellota means acorn, referring to the finishing diet for the animals.

“During the almost six months of the montanera season, from September to February, before they are slaughtered, the Ibericos forage to eat as many acorns as they can,” Martin explains. “The more bellota or acorns they eat, the richer the meat becomes.” Rearing of Ibericos also requires the use of an extensive amount of foraging land, about two-and-a-half acres per animal. The weight of the animals typically doubles, from 200 lbs. to 400 lbs.

“The whole life-cycle of the animal is also extensively monitored, from birth to slaughter, and so is the ham’s extensive dry-curing process, which takes three years,” Martin says.

The Serrano hams come from pigs raised in the Spanish mountains, and spend most of their lives on Spanish pasture land. Translated, Jamon Serrano means “mountain ham.”

Spanish slaughter house

The Fermin company was started by Martin’s grandfather in 1956, opening with a small butchery in La Alberca, Salamanca, Spain, where the company is still based. In 1995 the company built a slaughterhouse after company officials began thinking about expanding their market into the US. Ten years later, Fermin finally met USDA approval, becoming the first and only Spanish slaughter facility allowed to sell products in the United States. The first Iberico hams arrived in the US in late 2007.

A number of American companies sell imported Iberico ham and pork products here. One is Nicky USA, a family owned distributing and processing business in Portland, Ore. Geoff Latham and his wife, Melody, own the 22-year-old business. The couple began by selling farm-raised rabbits. They eventually expanded to selling Oregon goats, air-chilled turkey, venison, elk, buffalo, water buffalo and emus. They soon realized selling artisan pork and ham processed from Iberico pigs would be an even greater opportunity.

“The Fermin Iberico de Bellota pork and ham we distribute are world-class food products,” Latham says. The fresh pork is red, beef-like and marbled. On a grill, it can be seared medium-rare, then sliced. Latham’s company and other sources make the meat available to home cooks as skirt steaks, end loin steaks, shoulder steaks and tenderloins.

The increasing demand for this kind of meat is spurred on by a number of factors. “The interest in pork and ham has expanded over the past five years, resulting in two new USDA plants near here,” he notes, “and that’s helped my business, because I represent them. I’m selling 20 different types of salami.” Nicky USA is also a vendor for eight different types of sausage and a number of different salamis. Latham also distributes pork and ham from a Berkshire breed coming from Agri Beef Co.’s Snake River Farms, in Boise, Idaho.

Latham’s plant is growing because he does a lot more than distribute high-end Spanish ham and pork. He helps nearby pork processors produce high-end pork and ham they believe rivals the imported Spanish Iberico and Serrano meat. He has a close working relationship with Tails and Trotters, a pork-processing facility also located in Portland, co-owned and operated by Aaron Silverman and Mark Cockcroft.

“Pigs eating large amounts of nuts loaded with oil, especially toward the ends of their lives before they are butchered, create extra fat in their bodies that tastes terrific,” says Silverman. “This is particularly true for ancient pork breeds whose genetics encourage this.” He says a leg that’s marbled, after months of being cured, becomes a wonderful-tasting ham streaked with sweet fat that even boasts a taste of nuttiness.

While most commercial and commodity pork is raised to be lean and uncured, meat from these nut-fed pigs is different. And while few acorns are found in the Pacific Northwest, most of the nation’s hazelnut crop is raised there, benefiting the specialty ham and pork products.

The main goal of Tails and Trotters is to produce a quality, Northwest US prosciutto, via pigs and hazelnuts, Silverman says. Tails and Trotters uses the USDA inspection floor at Nicky USA to do much of its work. “We basically rent excess [processing] capacity there,” Silverman says.

Tails and Trotters also buys primals from a slaughterhouse. “The quality of life of our pigs is of great importance to us,” Silverman emphasizes. “We work closely with a family farm next door in Washington state that produces our pigs. The farm is certified by the Food Alliance for meeting comprehensive standards in sustainable agriculture and business practices.” Their pigs never receive antibiotics, hormones, growth stimulants or animal byproducts. Pigs becoming sick and requiring medication are removed from the program, treated and sold through conventional channels after the required waiting period. The Tails and Trotters pigs are fed grain by their grower until the “hazelnut finishing diet” during the last 60 to 90 days.

The Tails and Trotters pork is butchered and packaged under USDA inspection. Silverman and Cockcroft obtain the animals after slaughter for processing.

Historical perspective

Cockcroft believes the appeal for high-end pork and ham in the US began taking shape about 20 years ago. “There has been an awakening of the American palate. And while the commodity meat products will always dominate the market, “what we do is a very small part of the industry. People want to eat finer, high-end meat products once in a while – even if they can’t afford it all the time,” Cockcroft says.

Cockcroft says hazelnut-finished pork makes an authentic prosciutto. The company also produces its own bone-cured hams. Many of Cockcroft’s and Silverman’s Tails and Trotters ham and pork products are sold at farmers markets in the Pacific Northwest, locations where consumers are searching for high-quality products.

“Our hams are brined, but not heavily salted and lightly smoked, so the meat is not overwhelmed. You can taste the meat, and people really like that,” Cockcroft says.

“One of our best places for selling is the Portland Farmers Market, an outdoor market downtown near Portland State Univ.,” Silverman adds. “It’s a vibrant market, and consumers are coming there looking for the best, high-quality products. Right now, 99 percent of the pork sold in Oregon comes from outside the state. So, we’re trying to produce meat products from animals as local as possible at all stages, from the raising of the pigs to the final product,” Cockcroft says.

Patrons of Nicky USA and Tails and Trotters have many questions about how the animals are raised and treated. “How was the pig treated during its life?” Latham asks. “That’s very important to many of our customers.”

Operating a sustainable processing program is also very important to the company and its customers. “People like the idea we’re utilizing the entire animal, not just part of it.”

Nicky USA’s Latham is also proud of the sausage he makes from the “hazelnut hogs,” as he calls them, in cooperation with Tails and Trotters. “These sausages are very high-quality products. We do 120-lb. batches of sausages. It’s more of the ‘local food, know your source,’” he says.

The Iowa connection

Hazelnut pork and ham is not limited to the Pacific Northwest. Pigs finished on hazelnuts are also found in Iowa. In the small town of Norwalk, Herb and Kathy Eckhouse own and run La Quercia, where they make cured meats or salumi, including prosciutto, pancetta, copa, speck, lonza, guanciale and lardo.

He and Kathy, his wife and business partner, say they began to appreciate cured meats during the three-and-a-half years they lived in Parma, Italy, the city where prosciutto originated. Kathy says, “Our ambition to create our own prosciutto came from our desire to make use of the bounty [hogs] surrounding us in Iowa.”

When they returned to Iowa after their European stay, they began formulating plans for La Quercia, talking about how they would like to make cured meats similar to what they had discovered in Italy. Both had extensive careers in agriculture. They started La Quercia in 2000, at first importing Italian prosciutto, and then making their own at home. Four years later, they began to build a processing facility, and in October 2005, they sold the first prosciutto they made.

“We began La Quercia to make premium-quality American prosciutto because we felt there was really no high-end American ham or pork” Eckhouse says. “We saw an opportunity to offer American alternatives to traditional high-end European pork and ham. We noticed imports of Italian prosciutto were rising, and we saw more consumer interest here in high-end ham.”

They obtain their meat from five or six suppliers. The Eckhouses set the standards they want their growers to follow. These requirements include: the animals must have access to the outdoors, must not receive non-therapeutic antibiotics, or hormones, may not be fed animal byproducts and cannot be confined. “And since we’re small, we can pursue good relationships with the farmers who raise our pigs. That helps us to produce the best possible products we can.”

La Quercia is a USDA-inspected plant, and Herb and Kathy buy specific cuts to make their products, including, of course, rear legs for hams; bellies, loins, jowls, and collars. They make prosciutto and uncured pork from purebred Berkshires and Tamworths. They work with organic meat, and they make pork from Berkshire Chester White Cross animals.

Today, the Eckhouses produce 40,000 hams a year at La Quercia. They see themselves as niche producers of products that are increasing in demand. “Specialty cured meats is a growing category, and eventually they will become more affordable,” he says.

There seems little doubt the increasing manufacture and popularity of high-end meat products, in this case ham and pork, is a rapidly-growing trend in the US meat industry.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, contributing editor and feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.