Why sourcing organic meat is like finding a 'hog in a haystack'

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Producing European-quality prosciutto for the American mass market is no lite fare.

The following is an edited excerpt from "Salted & Cured: Savoring the Culture, Heritage, and Flavor of America's Preserved Meats," by Jeffrey Roberts (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017).

We might entitle this story "the hitchhiker’s guide to prosciutto," not because our Iowa hogs embarked on an interstellar journey but because the two protagonists met as a result of a flagged-down ride. In 1974, then 25-year-old Herb Eckhouse was traveling by thumb around the country. Born in Burlington, Iowa, and raised in Chicago by a World War II Jewish refugee, he graduated from Harvard and then hit the road, where he caught a fateful ride to Idaho from a cousin of his future wife, Kathy.

Originally from Berkeley, California, she spent time in Europe before crossing paths with Herb. They worked together as ranch hands in Iowa, and in 1979 a job with Wells Fargo took them to San Francisco, where Herb specialized in agricultural finance. Two years later Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a well-regarded seed company, enticed them back to Iowa with a job offer, and in 1985 Herb was reassigned to manage the business’s Italian division.

In my opinion, Pioneer had a unique management style because its international business assignments turned out to be quite prescient and significant. Herb, Kathy and their family "endured" four delicious years in the city of Parma, located in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna and home to prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, as well as great pasta, vino, balsamic vinegar and other delicacies. And don’t forget Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati and Bugatti! Gosh, I sure hope they qualified for a hardship allowance from Pioneer!

During their four years in Parma, the Eckhouse family learned to appreciate and embrace a lifestyle, a way of seeing the world and a commitment to excellence, especially around agriculture, food and cuisine. It must have been that those countless plates of prosciutto — safe to eat in Italy but not in the States (the USDA ban on importing these hams was still in place) — were very seductive, because an idea germinated, a crazy vision to make a ham in Iowa. In 1989 they returned to Des Moines, where the transformation of the state’s hog production from small growers to confinement operations was well on its way.

Kathy and Herb envisioned something special; their experience on her aunt’s farm, coupled with the deep Parma immersion, argued for a different worldview. They saw Iowa’s black gold; appreciated the lessons shared by Italian farmers, growers and artisans; and believed the state’s resources, properly stewarded with the right hog breeds and husbandry, could equal Italy’s best, and for the next 11 years, they nurtured this dream.

In 1999 DuPont bought Pioneer Hi-Bred, and a year later Herb decided to leave the company; his experience in agricultural economics pointed to continued consolidation of agricultural businesses with no guarantee of future employment. Perhaps now was the time to consider seriously their dream of creating an American prosciutto.

At the same time that they were witnessing the continued industrialization of American food, Herb and Kathy saw the craftsmanship and success of domestic wine, craft beer and artisan cheese, all powered by mounting consumer interest in great-tasting, wholesome products. A growing market for new domestic delicatessen and European imported meats contributed to the expansion of specialty food stores and delis. With their knowledge and sophisticated palates, Herb and Kathy saw opportunities to handcraft high-end prosciutto and other cured meats.

In 2001 they made a momentous and delicious decision to create an American prosciutto and returned to Parma to educate themselves and begin the process of building the new business. At a local trattoria they shared several plates of prosciutto and, I imagine, some very good wine and laid the philosophical and emotional foundation for their future. 

As Herb describes it, "That dinner was when it became clear to me that making something delicious, that caused people to stop and appreciate the eating experience as we and our friends did in Italy, would be the best way to show our appreciation of the beauty and bounty of the land around us, and would enable others to share that feeling of appreciation."

After returning to the States, they opened a small import business to sell prosciutto from Parma and other regions. From 2001 to 2006 the business helped them learn the details of running a wholesale operation, understand customer preferences and seasonal demand, and "to see if people would buy prosciutto from a guy named Herb." They did!

Moving from a dream to a reality takes guts, hard work, time, energy, money and wisdom gained through plenty of trial and error. Without experience as food producers, especially dry-cured meats, Herb and Kathy were beginners, novellini! And yet without assumptions, preconceptions or expectations, by using their intuition and knowledge together with insights from the experts, they could explore and learn from the best and develop everything from facility design to recipes.

The work extended over four years, with Herb making frequent trips to Parma and other Italian cities to consult with prosciutto artisans, as well as investigating and buying equipment. They outfitted La Quercia with Italian-made equipment; Herb said most American companies use the same manufacturers. They received expert advice from many individuals, including Paul Bertolli, former chef at Chez Panisse, who opened Fra’ Mani Handcrafted Foods in Berkeley in 2006.

In 2003 Herb and Kathy purchased land in Norwalk, Iowa, a few miles southwest of Des Moines. From the initial facility design to final approvals, they worked with health and meat inspectors to ensure they met all regulatory requirements. Their strategy reflects similar stories from other cured meat producers and artisan cheese makers; by engaging the people responsible to maintain health requirements, producers avoided potential problems, saved money and built better facilities.

In 2004, with plans in place, they self-financed and constructed the building, known in Italian as a prosciuttificio, and in 2005 began production. Herb meanwhile experimented making dry-cured hams, a process fraught with trials and errors, especially since his "curing equipment" consisted of a double refrigerator located in the basement of their house; as Herb described it, "not environmental!" Since the hams required nine to 12 months to cure and develop the right textures and flavors, the experiments overall took several years to reach initial conclusions.

One key element, perhaps the fundamental consideration in the eyes of regulators, is safety. Beyond such requirements as building cleanliness and HACCP plans, inspectors ensure that a salami or ham meets certain functional criteria of water activity, absence of salmonella or other pathogens and pH levels. After satisfying such standards, you can sell salami or dry-cured ham. As Herb expressed eloquently to me, "Il maiale morsica piu forte morto che vivo," or "The pig bites harder dead than alive," driving home the point that mishandled pork can be dangerous!

While Herb and Kathy are scrupulous about their products, safety by itself doesn’t sell. During their experiments, they matched their unique basement efforts against the Parma benchmarks to assess aroma, texture, flavors and mouthfeel, among many other measurements. To achieve superb prosciutto the Italians emphasize the crucial role of excellent animals; without great meat, you have a mediocre product.

From the outset of their porcine adventure, Kathy and Herb had no pretensions or illusions about duplicating a Parma or San Daniele prosciutto. Nor did they aspire to a mass-market product. Rather, to create a truly American masterpiece, they wanted heritage-breed hogs from farmers who practice good stewardship of animals and land. For them, just like the Italian artisans, the valuable characteristics of these animals reside in muscle and fat, with their inherent organoleptic qualities, all of which result from excellent genetics and husbandry.

This underlying philosophy resulted in a set of standards and protocols that still guide La Quercia today. Farmers must agree to four stewardship principles to sell hogs to the company; here are two examples:

All pigs must have access to the out-of-doors, have room to move around and socially congregate, and be able to root in deep bedding. This respects the pigs’ social instincts and natural behaviors.

Pigs must not receive non-therapeutic antibiotics, ionophores [ feed additives], hormones or synthetic hormones. Our farmers can treat illnesses, but they do not use hormones or antibiotics to artificially promote growth.

Since the standards apply most directly to farmers and their animals, the La Quercia protocols emulated precedents established in the 1990s by Bill Niman for his former company Niman Ranch. Imagine Iowa in 2005 and that you need to locate 400 to 500 hams that fulfill these criteria to get started. With over 16 million hogs in the state, nearly all confinement raised, you faced a proverbial "hog in a haystack" reality. Fortunately, La Quercia found quality animals grown by Iowa farmer Paul Willis under the Niman Ranch label and Organic Prairie growers.

In Italy traditional hams matured in natural caves, in which nature governs temperature, humidity and airflow throughout the year. To emulate the four seasons — winter, spring, summer and fall — to produce its prosciutto, La Quercia built a sophisticated four-chamber structure.  

The Prosciutto Americano arrived on the cured-meat scene with a burst of flavor and texture that immediately grabbed media, restaurant and consumer interest and demand. The timing coincided with national expansion by restaurants to make in-house charcuterie and new food producers who focused on cured meats.

The success of Prosciutto Americano provided both resources and greater motivation for Kathy and Herb to strengthen their commitment to heritage animals and best practices, especially around how they were fed. For a couple of years, the company used hams, bellies, cheeks and jowls from its original suppliers to make prosciutto, pancetta and guanciale. The next step was, in my eyes, even a greater leap, to move from nonorganic to organic animals. Beyond locating a certified organic farm, the principal challenge is the high cost of organic grains and other feed to raise meat animals and how these expenses affect the final price for cured meat.

It turns out that while Iowa is the center of the commodity corn and soybean universe, the state leads the nation in production of both organic grains and production of organic hogs. In 2007, 19 farms raised nearly 7,000 organic hogs, 41 percent of total national output, while seven years later, 14 growers raised 5,400 pigs, or a third of U.S. organic hog production.

In 2007 the company launched Green Label Organic Prosciutto, produced from Berkshire/Chester White crosses, grown by Becker Lane Farm, a USDA-certified organic grower in Dyersville, Iowa. Its owner, Jude Becker, feeds his animals 100 percent organic food, and just like the phrase "You are what you eat," it makes the difference.

Taste convinced Herb and Kathy! They could easily identify excellent organoleptic differences in organic hogs compared to nonorganic ones. That’s not to say the latter ones were not raised according to the company’s protocols; they certainly were. It’s just that for the Eckhouses to differentiate their product line, taste is everything: Il gusto è tutto! La Quercia’s organic Green Label hams exhibited an astounding depth of flavor with a lingering finish; the organic prosciutto was the first and is still the only one made in America.

Whether raising hogs, turkeys or rabbits or producing milk, organic feed is expensive. For La Quercia its limited edition, high-end organic products had to attract sufficient numbers of consumers to make it worthwhile. Its decision clearly intersected with the continued growth of national demand for organic products, and despite higher prices, sales of the organic prosciutto are steady.

While Prosciutto Americano accounts for half the company’s sales, the breakthrough products are the Green Label, Acorn, Berkshire and Tamworth editions. Their success generates demand backward through the food chain and creates greater opportunities for farmers to raise animals and grow organic grains. Unless consumers are willing to spend more money for a clearly superior product, La Quercia, its farmers and their suppliers cannot make a living.

I celebrate Kathy and Herb’s dinner in 2001; fueled by great food and wine with a deep belief in themselves, the land, and their vision for how Americans might eat differently in the future, they jumped into the unknown. In my opinion, we are all better for their decision; the company’s stewardship is reflected in every bite. Grazie mille e complimenti!

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