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China Has an Insatiable Appetite For Spain's Beloved Ibérico Ham

While you can score some mapo doufu with ground pork on the cheap throughout China, Chinese consumers are willing to pay top dollar for pricier, higher-quality Ibérico ham.
Photo via Flickr user snekse

Fine cured ham can be the stuff dreams are made of, a buttery, earthy, salty, and decadent delight. And while pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, accounting for more than a third of global meat consumption, there's only so much of the top quality stuff out there. China, for one, can't get enough of Ibérico ham, and the Chinese are importing and investing in Spain's famed pigs like never before, heating up the market for Spanish ham.


Perhaps no cuisine relies heavier on pig than Chinese. And while you can score some mapo doufu with ground pork on the cheap throughout China, The New York Times reports that with incomes on the rise in China, Chinese consumers are willing to pay top dollar for pricier, higher-quality Ibérico ham.

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Chinese imports from Spain rose 35 percent last year, making it the second-biggest importer after France. A single 18-pound leg from one of Spain's famous almond- and olive-eating pigs can cost up to $670 in Spain, and double that in America. And Chinese consumers pay even more for Ibérico than Americans.

Plus, China is a market for the whole hog, literally. China imports pig heads, ears, and innards, which can be tough to sell in Western markets. Though the Chinese are buying from head to hoof, one Chinese law that requires the bone in the leg to be removed prior to import has proved to be a stumbling block for Spanish ham producers. Still, business is brisk.

Photo via Flickr user Let Ideas Compete

Photo via Flickr user Let Ideas Compete

The World Health Organization's recent announcement that processed meats could lead to colorectal cancer was seen as an insult by Ibérico ham and other artisanal ham producers. The ruling grouped aged meats alongside things like mass-produced hamburger and sausages, labeling them as carcinogens. But in China, Spanish ham is considered the opposite—a safe choice. Buying ham produced in Spain guarantees its quality to the Chinese consumer, who can be wary of contaminated or adulterated food. This year, China arrested more than 100 people accused of trafficking diseased pork.


"Spanish ham is a very unique product, but it's also seen as healthy, which is a real asset when you're selling to the Chinese," Oliver Win, a Hong Kong fine foods distributor, told The New York Times.

China has its own historically important cured ham. Yunnan ham is a delicacy, a salted ham made from pigs who forage and graze freely in Xuanwei.

In America, Ibérico ham was banned until about a decade ago. American officials took issue with the curing process, which requires hams to "sweat" in the summer heat as they age, and had worries about swine flu. Of course, that sweating is, in large part, what imparts flavor throughout the ham. Thankfully, American agencies lightened up, but Spanish ham producers have found a more welcoming market in China.

The Chinese, as they have with other admired imported food products like fine wine, are even getting in on investing in Ibérico ham. The Chinese financial and industrial titan Fosun bought a slice of the company that owns Cinco Jotas, a top Spanish ham producer.

"I can't think of anybody more capable of distinguishing between different qualities of ham than the Chinese," the general director of Cinco Jotas, Bernardino Rodríguez, told The New York Times.

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But the Spanish also have reservations about the increased demand from China. Spain has already had to crack down on ham falsely labeled as Ibérico in the Asian nation, and some Spanish producers worry that if they ship too much ham to China, the Chinese may attempt to copy the Spanish methods.

Given the element of terroir involved in Ibérico ham, where black Iberian pigs munch sweet acorns in a uniquely Spanish climate and hams are aged in Spanish summer air, Ibérico ham seems safe. After all, part of the appeal is the provenance. One company, Bellota-Bellota, sells its pigs with their own passports, with information in English and Chinese about the pig's provenance, down to the location where the pig was raised and the farmer who raised it.

Photo via Flickr user high__voltage

Photo via Flickr user high__voltage

That's a far cry from the necessary industrial farming techniques needed to produce the 500 million pigs that China produces and consumes a year. China's pig consumption has increased sevenfold since the 1970s, and it continues to rise along with economic prosperity, leading to environmental challenges like growing greenhouse gases and mountains of manure. While many Chinese are eating local, the wealthy may be eating Ibérico.