EX­POSED – hid­den hor­rors of your gourmet Parma ham

An­i­mals crammed into cages littered with the corpses of piglets rot­ting in their own blood... in a mid­night raid on a prized Ital­ian ‘prosci­utto’ farm, our man bears wit­ness to scenes of un­speak­able car­nage and cru­elty

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - Comment - By Ian Bir­rell

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 world­fa­mous ‘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 sixyear 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 world­fa­mous 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 walki­etalkie 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

Out of 21 pigs in one of the pens, ten were dead

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 condi- tions 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 cheese­mak­ing 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

Scores of rats scur­ried round the filthy sheds ‘How can they call this a high-qual­ity prod­uct?’

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. It said 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.

NA­TIONAL FAVOURITE: Bri­tain im­ports 18mil­lion packs of pre-sliced Parma ham a year

AP­PALLED: Ian Bir­rell points at dead piglets at the farm near Bres­cia. In­set above: A pig crams its snout through the bars of its tiny cage and, in­set top, an­other an­i­mal in its cramped stall

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