Ham, ham, lovely ham.

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Following on from my last post, I’ve been thinking more an more recently about what constitutes an artisan product. I started thinking about it after taking part in a Radio Cymru discussion recently on sausage production. There’s a generalised view that products sold from a farm shop or high street butchers are going to be hand-made in small batches. Sadly, it’s not true, many small retailers buy in sausages, bacons and cooked meats from larger producers.

As I’m looking at potential grant streams, I’ve been drawing up budgets for the type of machinery I’d like to get for my new processing unit. Essentially they’re all slightly bigger versions of what I already use. What’s caused me the biggest quandary is the sausage stuffer. I currently hand crank every single sausage I produce, batches are small, recipes traditional, ingredients are of the highest quality, casings are natural, any twisting or tying is done by hand. I’m not willing to change any of my ingredients, but if I started to further mechanise any of that process, would it stop being an artisan product?


Sticking with the processing theme, I noticed a new tv advert for the ‘only ham made with 100% natural ingredients’. As soon as I saw it, and their claim, I was onto their website to see their ingredients list. The key ingredient (along with pork and salt) in bacon or ham is either sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate (or a combination of the three). It lowers the risk of clostridium botulinum (that causes botulism) and it generates that delightful pink colour in cured meats. Nitrite/nitrate is usually synthetically produced, and should be listed on an ingredient list as a preservative with its own E-number. So, what makes Richmond Ham so natural? Well, they use a mixture of sea salt (which contains natural trace elements of sodium nitrate) and celery extract (which also contains sodium nitrate) instead of synthetically produced cure. It provides them with a ‘clean-labelled’ product, as they don’t have to list it as a preservative. It’s fascinating stuff (well, for me anyway). While on my study tour of the US last year I came across a huge amount of nitrite/nitrate free clean-labelled produce. It seems to be a major consumer choice there. I have mixed feelings over clean-labelling.

There’s legislation already in place limiting the levels of nitrite/nitrate in cured products from synthetically derived nitrite/nitrate. However, there’s little to govern the levels derived from natural produce such as celery. Many people buy nitrite/nitrate free products as they don’t believe in ingesting nitrite/nitrates, however, the likelihood is that they’re ingesting even higher doses. There’s also the moral question – is a synthetically produced compound any worse than a compound derived through heavy processing? And are we fooling customers labelling something as natural, when from a chemical perspective it’s the very same product?

The other item on the ingredient list of interest is pork protein. I’m taking a guess here, but I assume it’s an emulsified mix of pork and cure that’s being re-injected back into the muscle. Still sound natural to you? It doesn’t put me off one bit, it’s how emulsified products are made, it doesn’t make this one any worse or better. If there’s an introductory offer on for it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be buying a packet to try it out. But spare a thought when you’re reading a label that says 100% natural.

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  1. Philip

    as an ex-Chemistry teacher i have to say how right you are! there is no differrence in the chemical whichever way it is produced. the public has been conned for years over this ‘labelling’ issue. one of the main problems is that ‘they want to believe’! and in doing so miss the logic of the situation. in fact a synthetically produced ‘chemical’ has a better chance of being a purer product and can therefore be used mores sparingly and have less chance of side effect than using a so called ‘natural’ source of the same chemical which must, by its very nature , be ‘diluted’ with other ingredients/chemicals which are not stipulated ot analysed! The puplic are easily seduced by so called ‘natural/organic’ packaging which is just advertising after all.

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