René Lemée said Chinese middle-class consumers had turned to Iberian ham as a luxury food © 123RF
René Lemée said Chinese middle-class consumers had turned to Iberian ham as a luxury food © 123RF

Spain faces ham shortage caused by Chinese demand

27 November 2017

Spain could be facing an Iberian ham shortage due to Chinese demand, which has threatened to deplete supply.

René Lemée, the head of exports for the famous Cinco Jotas brand, told El País that tourism and the recent lifting of import restrictions to China had allowed top-of-the-range ham to find its “rightful place in the market alongside caviar and truffles”.

“The economic crisis in Spain was an incentive for tourists to visit the country and that allowed many people to meet and fall in love with ham,” he said.

He added that because of China’s insatiable appetite for pork and its growing wealth, Chinese middle-class consumers had turned to the top-of-the-range Spanish ham.

However, because Iberian ham takes years to produce, demand is now threatening to outstrip supply.

The priciest ham on the market, jamon iberico de bellota, which comes from pigs that only eat acorns during the final few months before they are slaughtered, is the most in-demand ham in China. 

It is cured for 36 months, with the best hams cured for about 48 months —longer than other types of Iberian ham, according to El País.

There are also relatively small areas of dehesa—the wild oak forests on which Iberian pigs graze. Each animal needs at least two hectares to itself, making it difficult for farmers to increase their herds.

Roberto Batres, director of Shanghai de Delaiberia Gold, which exports ham, wine and olive oil to China, said the lack of supply and heightened demand means Spaniards are paying around 10% more for their Iberian ham. 

A full leg costs €300- €500 (£270-£450) and a 10% price hike would increase the cost by around €50.

“It’s inevitable that the price in Spain is going to rise,” he said. 

“There are some companies that are licenced to sell in China that do not have enough bellota ham to meet Chinese demand.”

He said that to try and speed up the process, the Chinese started to import frozen ham legs and cure the meat themselves, but the product is excessively salty. 

He added that a sign of how far the product had penetrated the local market was that they had established a ham-cutting school in China and a professional association for Iberian ham.

Traditionally, jamon de bellota leg must be bolted on to a frame, called a jamonero, and then cut by hand using a long, narrow blade.

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