To World Health Organisation experts and nutritionists everywhere the call for people to eat less supposedly cancer-causing processed meat sounds like good sense. To the producers of Parma ham in the Italy’s “Pig Valley”, however, it sounds more like a declaration of war.
Italy’s farming association Coldiretti claimed that by labelling processed and red meats as carcinogens, the International Agency for Research on Cancer had put at risk a sector worth an annual €32 billion (£24 billion) to the nation’s economy. “The false alarms on meat are putting 180,000 jobs at risk,” said the group’s director Roberto Montcalvo.
In the Emilia Romagna part of the Po River Valley, there is particular concern. From Parma, the centre of prosciutto crudo, across to Bologna the economy of this part of northern Italy is heavily pork-dependent.
Local journalist and culinary expert Sandro Bellei told La Stampa: “It’s a question of economics, certainly, because pork is big business in this area, but also of tradition, knowledge and taste. In other words, culture.”
Prosciutto crudo, the dry-cured ham made form the hind legs of pig or boar that is usually thinly sliced and served uncooked, is one of the region’s products that is celebrated the world over.
Mr Bellei was behind the idea to place a bronze statue of a pig, “The Divine Swine” in the central square of little town of Castelnuovo Rangone, in Pig Valley, as an indication of the animal’s importance.
Meanwhile, Gian Paolo Angelotti, president of the butchers trade organisation Assomacellai says that sales of red meat in Italy have already plunged by 20 per cent since the cancer warning.
But upping the ante, the Italian Association of Epidemiology has claimed that if average national consumption of red and processed meats were halved from current levels, 2,000 deaths a year from cancer and heart disease would be avoided.
Beatrice Lorenzin, the health minister, sought to placate pig farmers and health campaigners by adopting the middle ground. “We should have a little bit every of everything,” she said. “We’ve always known that eating too much red meat is bad for the health. But in recent years we’ve forgotten our traditions and we are tending to eat more and more processed food.”
The high profile Italian cancer doctor Umberto Veronese, whose opinions hold considerable influence, has gone even further than the WHO, however, saying the new report highlighted the need to cut meat out of diets altogether. "My advice as someone who has always been vegetarian is to eliminate consumption of meat altogether for ethical and philosophical reasons," he said.
But Carlo Bruzzi, the mayor of Castelnuovo Rangone called on people to use their common sense. “The problem is not the warning, -- we’ve known for ages that too much red meat is not good for you -- it’s people being alarmist,” he said.