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Spaniards Snap Up Holiday Hams, Even After Cancer Warning

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on December 23, 2015 3:53 pm

In Madrid, Museo del Jamón, which isn't a museum but a chain of bars, sells special ham backpacks, for carrying a whole ham leg — hoof and all — around town at the holidays. Spanish airports have special luggage rules for them. A leg of ham is the most popular family gift at Christmas. Every self-respecting Spanish household has a jamonera — a kitchen countertop rack on which to mount and cut slices off a ham leg.

"It's the ingredient we use most in Spain — essential to our cooking and to our lives," says Jesus Engamo, a ham cutter who has worked at the museum for 35 years. "We can't live without it!"

So when the World Health Organization warned in October that eating 50 grams a day of processed meat — defined as including anything cured or salted, like Spanish ham — can raise your risk of cancer, Spaniards were aghast. (On average, Spaniards eat 140 grams of pork a day, though there's no official breakdown of how much of that is cured or processed versus fresh.)

"I think it's a lie! It's what other countries say when they're jealous of Spain because we have the ham," says Asunción Claudios, 25, sharing a plate of jamón ibérico with friends at the Museo.

She closes her eyes as she places a paper-thin, almost translucent slice of jamón on her tongue. It's got to be a conspiracy, she says.

A ham cutter demonstrates how to carefully slice Spanish jamón at the Don Jamón tapas bar on Madrid's Gran Vía.
Lauren Frayer for NPR

"I'm inclined to say Germany is behind this," she says, straight-faced. "Sure, they have sausage there — but it's no jamón. Other countries are jealous."

There is no evidence whatsoever that Germany or any pork-producing competitor put the WHO up to its cancer warnings. And Spain's ham industry has balked at its products being described as unhealthy, lumped in with other processed meat, like hot dogs.

"My first reaction was, 'I can't believe it!' We have a lot of studies that say just the opposite," says Ricardo Mosteo, president of the Denomination of Origin (D.O.), a ham quality-assurance board, in the region of Teruel, east of Madrid.

Last summer, a scientific study funded by the meat industry of Andalusia, another Spanish region, found that cured Spanish ham is free of the toxoplasmosis parasite found in other uncooked meats, and thus safe for pregnant women.

Groups like the Spanish Jamón Serrano Foundation claim local ham is ideal for people on diets, the elderly, or athletes. The group's website says jamón cuts cholesterol and boosts childhood growth and athletic performance.

NPR could not independently verify the research methods or conclusions of those studies.

But with the WHO findings, Mosteo says his phone has been ringing off the hook, with queries from journalists as well as confused ham consumers.

"I wasn't very worried, but then journalists started phoning me, [asking] 'What do you think?' " he says. "And I realized, OK, this is going to be a problem for us."

The sale of ham legs alone is a $1.65 billion industry in Spain, and 50 percent of sales happen in the weeks before Christmas, Mosteo says.

He predicts a marketing shift, with Spanish ham producers describing their products as organic, to be consumed in small quantities, as a luxury item. But Mosteo says there's been no perceptible drop in ham sales so far this holiday season.

Back on Madrid's Gran Vía, the Méson El Jamón — the house of ham — has a pork leg wearing a Santa hat on its storefront. Inside, another ham specialist is chopping jamón serrano for croquetas — bechamel dumplings.

"Here we're actually selling more ham since the WHO warning," says Angel Contera. "There's an urgency to enjoy it now. If jamón is bad for us, what will we live on?"

He sighs and puts down his knife. He's taking a break — going out for a smoke.

Correction: 12/23/15

A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Teruel region is south of Madrid. It's actually to the east of Madrid.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And let's hear reaction to a new World Health Organization warning on processed meat. Two slices of bacon or ham a day, it says, could put you at higher risk of cancer. We asked reporter Lauren Frayer how that warning is playing out in Spain. There, the beloved local jamon is a staple at Christmas time.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here in Madrid, there's a chain of bars called Museo del Jamon. They're not museums. They're just regular bars specializing in Spanish ham. But the name gives you an idea of the reverence with which Spaniards treat ham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: There's even a popular song about eating ham at the Museo del Jamon. Jesus Engamo is a ham cutter - you can get a college degree in that here - who's worked at the Museo for 35 years.

JESUS ENGAMO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: It's the ingredient we use most in Spain, he says. We can't live without it. His bar sells special ham backpacks for carrying a whole ham leg, hoof and all, around town at the holidays. Spanish airports have special luggage rules for them. Ham is the most popular family gift at Christmas. So when the WHO warning came out, Spaniards were aghast.

ASUNCION CLAUDIOS: It's very false. It's the best of the world.

FRAYER: Asuncion Claudios closes her eyes as she places a paper-thin slice of jamon on her tongue. It's got to be a conspiracy, she says.

CLAUDIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: I'm inclined to say Germany is behind this, she says. Sure, they have sausage there, but it's no jamon. Other countries are jealous. There is no evidence whatsoever that Germany or any pork-producing competitors put the WHO up to this. The ham cutter behind the bar, Jesus Engamo, interrupts.

ENGAMO: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: I guess that if you eat lots of it, sure, you could get cancer, he says, just like wine if you drink too much. He glances at his customers all holding glasses of wine and plates of ham, and he quickly adds, I think it's fictitious, though, of course. Spain's ham producers balk at their products being described as unhealthy like other processed meat.

RICARDO MOSTEO: My first reaction, I can't believe it. We have a lot of studies that say the opposite.

FRAYER: Ricardo Mosteo is president of a local ham producers' association.

MOSTEO: The journalists are phoning me, what do you think? OK, this is going to be a problem for us.

FRAYER: He predicts a marketing shift with Spanish ham producers describing their products as organic, to be consumed in small quantities as a luxury item. On Madrid's Gran Via, virtually every second bar is a jamoneria, a ham bar. At the Meson de Jamon, the house of ham, there's a pork leg with a Santa hat out front. Inside, Angel Contera chops jamon serrano.

ANGEL CONTERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Here, we're actually selling more ham since the WHO warning, he says. There's an urgency to enjoy it now. If jamon is bad for us, what will we live on? Then he sighs and puts down his knife. He's taking a break going out for a smoke. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.