Dead pigs expose horrors behind gourmet Parma ham
Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th May, 2018)
First came the smell, an acrid stench of ammonia clinging to the breeze as I walked through the dark towards some big sheds. Then I heard sounds of snorting and snuffling, punctured by the odd piercing scream.
Stepping inside one of the buildings, I passed the bodies of two small piglets dumped in a pool of blood. Then I saw scenes of horrifying carnage and cruelty.
Inside one giant room, I found hundreds of piglets, many barely a month old, stuffed into crowded pens alongside dozens of dead, diseased and dying animals. Almost every cage held small corpses: some stretched out as if asleep, others in heaps that could have lain there a couple of days.
Many more creatures were too weak to move, little pink bodies heaving as they panted for breath on metal slats. In one pen I counted 21 animals. Ten were dead, six seemed to be dying – one with a disfiguring skin disease – and just five were still alive.
One sparky little fellow clambered up on a pile of corpses then sank to its trotters and stared at me pitifully.
Each one of these caged animals – alive or dead, healthy or sick, big or small – had a small blue tattoo on one of their thighs. This proved they were the raw material for one of Italy’s most famous prestige food products: prized legs of Parma ham.
Forget all those rustic images of pampered pigs trotting happily around bucolic Italian fields and forests. For lurking behind the promotion of this world-famous ‘artisan’ food lies industrialised factory farming at its most harsh and intense.
A series of recent reports have accused farmers of gross cruelty, leading the multi-million-pound Parma Ham Consortium to accuse animal rights activists of smears. The trade body insists images of filthy pens and sick animals are ‘not credible’.
It is fighting for the future of an iconic product, protected by European law, which supports 50,000 jobs and 4,000 farms while earning the medieval metropolis of Parma global recognition as a Unesco ‘Creative City of Gastronomy’.
Britain, the biggest foreign buyer of pre-cut Parma ham, is a key export market. Restrictions on production are so rigid that one UK supermarket lost a six-year legal fight for the right to slice ham sold under the label.
I went into three farms alongside the secretive investigations team from Essere Animali – an Italian group campaigning to end factory farming abuses – to probe the damning accusations against the producers of this world-famous cured meat.
Last year they released shocking footage secretly recorded over six months on a farm near Bologna. It showed workers throwing animals around, lifting them by their legs and dumping some to die in corridors.
Yet even Francesco Ceccarelli, the investigation team’s head who has spent two years probing the production of Parma ham and the similar Prosciutto San Daniele, was horrified by the evidence we discovered during our nocturnal visit to one farm near Brescia.
‘I’ve never seen so many dead,’ he said. ‘Some have been dead for days and there are so many sick with terrible eyes and skin. I feel such compassion for them since there seems to be no care, no medicine. This is like a death camp for them.’
We entered the farms in a military-style operation, starting shortly after midnight.
After dressing in a dark boiler suit, we clamped masks over our mouths for protection from the hideous fumes created by thousands of pigs clustered in giant sheds. One man with a walkie-talkie stood guard as we checked to see if shed doors had been left open so we could start our disturbing tour.
After pushing open the door to the first room, hundreds of pigs crammed into pens looked up startled as our lights flashed on. All seemed to have their tails sliced off – although routine docking (tail clipping) is forbidden under European Union regulations.
I saw some pigs with bloodied tail stumps where bored or stressed neighbours had munched on them. This was far from the only sign of cannibalism – corpses I saw later in rooms down the corridor also appeared to have been chewed.
Scores of rats scurried round the filthy shed, some sprinting along pipes beside my head. One piglet trapped in a corridor without water trotted up and nudged my legs.
These are curious and highly intelligent creatures. Yet they were packed in their barren pens, standing on slatted floors and lacking any comforts such as straw or sawdust as demanded by European rules. Some seemed sick with infected eyes – caused by high levels of ammonia in the air, claim activists – or festering sores on their bodies. One had an ear horribly blown up like a balloon.
This farm, with so many dead piglets littering its pens, seemed dirty and devoid of decent care. Yet even in another that was significantly better kept, I discovered conditions far removed from the natural imagery associated with this industry.
There were rows of female pigs in sow stalls that left them room to sit and stand but never to turn around. Such restrictive crates were banned in Britain shortly before the turn of the century.
Activists said the animals are kept confined in such cramped conditions for four weeks during artificial insemination. I watched as one sow urinated, the gush of liquid splashing from the floor on to its neighbours. Like the other farms I saw, there was no outside access for the animals during their short lives in caged captivity.
Another room was filled with farrowing crates, which held mothers under red lights – again with no space to turn – and litters of piglets beside them. Designed to stop offspring being crushed, these devices are banned in some European countries.
An estimated half of Italy’s nine million pigs are reared for Parma ham in the Po Valley region, many in the ‘golden triangle’ around Brescia, Cremona and Mantua, lying between Milan and Venice. Only about 35,000 are raised by organic means.
Like Scotch whisky and Stilton cheese, Parma ham has Protected Designation of Origin status from the EU. The trade body responsible for the industry ensures the production of ham is governed by rigid and detailed rules, from the three permitted breeds of pig through to the salt used for curing.
Animal rights activists argue that given the price premium – protected foods can sell for twice the cost of competitors – the industry should extend its rules to guard pigs from abuse and the cruelties of factory farming, even if this puts up costs.
‘We suspect 80 per cent [of pigs] are raised in these intensive methods,’ said Ceccarelli. ‘‘For a start they could give a signal by abandoning those nursery cages and abolishing routine castration. These animals are really suffering.’
One investigator claimed that, within days of starting work undercover on a farm, they saw a worker smash a pig’s face with a metal bar. ‘The image of Parma ham pigs running around fields is just a fairy tale,’ said another on my mission.
Lega Anti Vivisezione, another animal rights group, recently released footage from six more farms in Lombardy – four of them breeding pigs for Parma ham – that showed illegal practices, carcasses, overcrowding, sick pigs and poor hygiene. ‘How can you talk about selling high-quality products when animals are reared in these conditions?’ asked Roberto Bennati, the group’s vice-president.
Yet local politicians are calling for intervention to stop the activists’ campaign because it threatens ‘dangerous negative fallout on the entire production of a regional gastronomic excellence’, in the words of Fabio Rainieri, a councillor from the hard-right League party.
Certainly the revelations threaten to ruin the image of the celebrated air-cured hams from the hills around Parma, famous from Roman times when their sweet taste was praised by Cato the Elder and the meat supposedly eaten by Hannibal.
Britain imports 300,000 Parma hams and 18 million packs of pre-sliced meat annually, while thousands of tourists visit factories around Parma to learn how the hams are cured. It is claimed dry air from the Apennine Mountains gives the delicacy its special flavour – along with local cereal grains and the high-protein by-products of Parmesan cheese-making that were traditionally fed to the region’s pigs.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the chef and campaigner for ethical food production, said the revelations underlined that ‘most Parma ham, like bacon or sausages, is a mass-produced product’.
‘Pigs are being reared intensively – that’s indoors, industrially, on a huge scale,’ he said. ‘They are at the front line of animal welfare, living miserable lives. Anyone who cares about the welfare of pigs should only buy pork, ham, bacon and charcuterie from free-range, outdoor-reared pigs that is clearly labelled as such.’
Reportedly, the 2001 fight over the location of the European Food Safety Agency was won when Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister, offered all his fellow leaders a lifetime supply of the famous ham. The body is based in Parma.
These revelations about Parma ham pig farms come soon after the World Health Organisation’s decision to classify processed meat as a carcinogen – although the guardians of Parma ham insist it is a ‘genuine and completely natural’ product, safely distinct from British bangers or Spanish chorizo.
The Parma Ham Consortium insists animal welfare is a matter for Italian and European lawmakers. ‘The real scope of the campaign seems not the care of animals but to attack the good name of the Prosciutto di Parma [Parma Ham],’ it said.
The body pointed out none of its 145 recognised producers had ever been formally accused of animal maltreatment. ‘We condemn any violation of the basic norms of animal welfare which represent a criminal offence intolerable in a civil society,’ it added.
The consortium likes to boast of producing ‘the King of Hams’. But the memory of seeing those dead and dying pigs trapped in such callous conditions makes such claims stick in my throat.