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'Saluti' from Italy

While I do a fair amount of travelling in my work, I have never had the opportunity to go “across the pond” until this week. I’m writing today’s column from Parma, Italy, where I had the pleasure of addressing a symposium sponsored by Pfizer Animal Health and the Italian swine veterinarians’ association (SIVAR). The meeting was attended by about 170 veterinarians, most of whom work in northern Italy, where the bulk of the country’s hog population is located.

It did not take me long to put Parma together with Parma ham and Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, perhaps the best-known products of this region. I have availed myself of the opportunity to partake of both products on several occasions and can attest to their quality. A visit this morning to a small Parmegiano-Reggiano plant (where the cheese is “never manufactured, always hand-made” – as the slogan goes), and a small Parma ham processor provided some interesting insights to branding Italian/European Union (EU) style.

Both products are limited to their historical region of origin. Just as you cannot buy champagne that is not from the Champagne region of France, you cannot buy either Parma ham (or Prosciuto de Parma) or Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese that does not come from this relatively small area of northern Italy.

The raw products that go into both products are produced to tight specifications. The milk used in Parmegiano-Reggiano must come from specific dairies that never use silage or other fermented feeds or any source of animal protein. Further, the grass or hay fed the cow must be grown within this region. The pork legs used for Parma ham must come from pigs slaughtered specifically for this purpose that are, again, fed specific diets that include, among other things, whey. The processes for both products are exacting. There are only about 2,000 cheese plants certified to produce Parmegiano-Reggiano and only about 200 Parma ham plants.

Farmers in Italy are dealing with many of the same problems we face in the United States and Canada. Most notable, feed costs here are significantly higher than in the past and it is causing the same kind of problems we see back home. Italian pork producers are wondering just how long they can continue to raise hogs to 160-170 kg (350-380 lb.) to provide the large legs required by Parma ham manufacturers. Milk producers have already raised the price they charge the cheese makers, but the cheese makers have so far had trouble increasing the price of cheese – in no small part because today’s higher-cost cheese will not be sold until two years from now. Talk about time lags!

A stroll through a supermarket near my hotel showed some interesting prices for various meats, too. Pork chops about one-half-inch thick and closely trimmed, center cut, boneless pork loin roasts were priced at €7,90/kg or about $4.90/lb. Pork tenderloin was €11,90/kg or $7.21/lb. Whole chickens, which were decidedly less muscular than the birds found in the United States sold for €3.50/kg or $2.12/lb. But, boneless, skinless chicken breasts sold for €9.80/kg ($5.94/lb.). Ground beef and beef ribeye steaks sold for €8,50 and €13,50/kg, respectively, which converts to $5.21 and $8.18/lb.

Finally, horse steaks were priced at €20,15/kg ($12.21/lb.) and ground horse meat was selling for €10,50/kg ($6.36/lb.). It appears that Europeans are just as enamored with horses as are U.S. Congressmen and Senators, but for a far different reason!

Chemical Castration to Come
One important technical issue was discussed at the conference. The “chemical castration” vaccine called Improvac has been approved for use in Switzerland. Yes, Switzerland is part of the EU, where the mantra of the people operates on the precautionary principle that if something could ever, ever possibly, in the most remote way hurt anyone, then don’t do it!

An official with the Swiss national veterinarian office made the presentation and made a compelling case as to why Improvac is a vaccine, not a pharmaceutical or hormonal treatment. Perhaps the most important facet of this product, though, is that you can tell by looking at the pigs whether they have been treated or not.

So, soon we may not be able to castrate pigs, yet still gain the production efficiencies of feeding intact males and still allow packers the assurance of being able to sort out pigs that may cause boar taint in their plants. This may come in handy when U.S. animal rights groups get more heavily involved in the castration debate. And notice I said “when”, not “if”. That campaign is coming!

Sorting Through Market Numbers
A quick perusal of this week’s Production and Price Summary tables indicate a nice increase in U.S. market hog prices last week. The only problem with that increase is that it occurred without support from product and cutout values, indicating that packer margins were squeezed. It is almost impossible to maintain rallies of that nature unless product prices rise quickly.

U.S. hog slaughter was 4% lower than one year ago. That compares to my estimate of -2.4%, based on the December Hogs and Pigs Report and expected changes in the flow of Canadian market hogs. Those imports were over 59,000 head or 71% lower than last year. I had expected the reduction of Canadian market hogs to be 2% of U.S. weekly slaughter or about 46,000 head. The extra 13,000 head do not explain all of the difference in the year-on-year slaughter change, so U.S.-fed hog numbers were a bit lower than I expected last week as well.

The cutbacks in the broiler business continued last week with egg sets falling 6.4% behind last year’s levels and chick placements falling 5.8% short of last year. Chicken slaughter and production were still close to last year’s levels, but I expect those to begin running a consistent 2-4% below last year as we get into February.

Click to view graphs.

Steve R. Meyer, Ph.D.
Paragon Economics, Inc.
e-mail: [email protected]