It wasn’t until later, as we watched the pigs inhale their meal, that Armando talked about the rationale behind his methods. He explained that research being conducted in Australia and New Zealand is showing that when stress is minimized in animals, the meat has a lower pH and is consistently more delicate than in animals that experience stress during transport, handling, and slaughter. In other words, when it comes to making a high-quality, rarefied product like jamon Ibérico, a little tenderness goes a long way.
After the tour was done, Loli brought plates of fresh goat cheese and toast rounds spread with homemade pate to a picnic table beside the house, along with a warm salad of cilantro, red potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs, all from the garden and henhouse. I wondered out loud whether these studies might provide an economic incentive for animal welfare on factory farms. I later realized that industrial meat producers are already well aware that stress has adverse affects on meat. There are even names for the consequences of abuse, like Pale Soft Exudative (PSE). It’s so common in fact that the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization talks extensively about PSE in its “Guidelines for Humane Handling, Transport and Slaughter of Livestock.” When the animals are subjected to manhandling, fighting in the pens, and bad stunning techniques, the fright and stress causes a rapid breakdown of muscle glycogen. This lightens the color of the meat and turns it acidic and tasteless, making it difficult to sell, so it is usually discarded.
According to research by Kansas State University, PSE causes the U.S. pork industry losses of $275 million annually. If not motivated by morals, industrial pig farmers could avoid profit loss by allowing animals to rest before they are slaughtered, giving them enough space and some water. Unfortunately, most meat today is ground beyond recognition and consumers can’t taste the difference, so the cost of creating stress-free environments for animals doesn’t pay off.
But there’s a side to this that’s more alarming than the threat of tasteless meat.The Journal of Animal Science and researchers at the University of Milan’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine recently confirmed that fear experienced during slaughter significantly elevates meat’s levels of stress hormones—adrenaline, cortisol, and other steroids. Studies on human consumption of artificial growth hormones, which are believed by many to affect our reproductive systems and other bodily processes, have already resulted in policy changes in many countries, including those that make up the E.U. Attention is now turning to these naturally occurring fear-induced hormones as scientists worry that their consumption causes similar problems.