In most places, calling someone a pig is an insult. In Spain, the joke goes, it’s a way of saying you love every inch of them. These days, “Chicken” would be more appropriate for amorous Spaniards.
Spain’s passion for the dry-cured meat known as jamon, cultivated for centuries and inextricably tied to its culture, has been severely tested by the nation’s prolonged economic slump and soaring costs for pork across Europe. It’s gotten so bad that the Spanish, Europe’s biggest pork eaters, consumed more chicken than pig last year for the first time ever, according to market researcher Euromonitor.
Pork prices have advanced as much as 35 percent over the past year, according to Britain’s BPEX, which tracks the hog industry. The causes: Fewer European swine mature enough to slaughter, rising feed costs after the U.S. summer drought, and a doubling of exports to China, where the growing middle class hankers for pork.
At stake is an 11 billion-euro ($14 billion) industry that accounts for 5.5 percent of all fresh food sold in Spain, according to Euromonitor and Confecarne, Spain’s meat industry association. Sales of pork in Spain declined 6.2 percent last year to 798,000 tons, while poultry sales were little changed at 810,000 tons, Euromonitor found. Spaniards on average ate 1.2 kilograms less pig in 2011 than the previous year, and sales of jamon iberico -- Spain’s priciest pork product -- have fallen the most.
While the Spanish are cutting back on all meats, “pork was by far the worst-performing category, paying the toll of soaring prices during a time of economic recession and high unemployment,” said Euromonitor analyst Anastasia Alieva.
Isabel Romero, a jobless mother of two, spends about 700 euros a month on food, 30 percent less than three years ago. She’s traded down from her son’s favorite, jamon iberico -- made from the back legs of acorn-fed black pigs and cured as long as three years -- to cheaper varieties from supermarkets rather than her local butcher.
“Pork has become very expensive and I now need to look for discounts and other products such as chicken,” Romero, 48, said while shopping in Madrid. “I also buy more prepackaged or processed jamon than before, although the flavor isn’t as good.”
Honorario Gallo, who runs three butcher shops in Madrid, said his sales are down about 15 percent this year, forcing him to cut staff.
“Our customers try to save as much as they can by buying other cheaper things,” Gallo, whose business traces its roots back to 1840, said in his shop in Madrid’s lively Gaztambide neighborhood. “Pork prices are totally out of hand.”
It’s not just economic distress and rising prices that have curtailed pork sales. Spain’s burgeoning population of Latin American immigrants favor poultry over pork, while the elderly tend to choose leaner proteins such as fish. Marleny Santos, a 52-year-old Madrid resident, said she’s substituting chopped, prepackaged turkey for pork these days, as it’s “cheaper and healthier.” Those trends will continue to hurt Spanish pork sales, which Euromonitor expects to decline another 3.6 percent this year.
Spanish retailers are dangling special offers to entice shoppers to buy more pig. At Hipercor supermarkets, buying three 150-gram packages of sliced jamon iberico costs 8.60 euros per pack, compared with 12.90 euros for one. And a 65-euro leg of jamon serrano comes with a free half-block of cured cheese.
Spain’s pork partisans are fighting back, albeit with dwindling resources. Jose Ramon Godoy, manager of the Jamon Serrano Foundation, said his budget has declined 20 percent over the past four years as fewer regional governments contribute to the Madrid organization’s campaigns to champion pork products. The group says a full leg of jamon serrano provides more than 50 servings at about the same cost as a family movie outing.
Godoy says one can’t understand Spanish culture without appreciating jamon, a staple of the country’s diet since the Romans crossbred their pigs with wild Iberian boars in the second century B.C. Hams and sausages hang conspicuously in taverns and shops across Spain, a legacy of the Spanish Inquisition, when Muslims and Jews were obliged to prove they had converted to Christianity by openly displaying their affinity for a meat forbidden by their previous religions.
With the Spanish retail sales down a record 11 percent in September, Godoy said he’s now focused on boosting jamon sales abroad with tastings across Europe and as far away as China and Mexico.
As Spaniards have stopped buying, visitors to Spain are helping keep some jamon purveyors afloat. Like many other butchers, Andres Montalvo has tried to make his shop next to Madrid’s Plaza Mayor more inviting to foreigners, who now account for 90 percent of sales.
“Local customers spend way less on jamon than they used to,” he said. “However, tourists love jamon and most of them have a lot of money.”