Monday marks the beginning of a new era for hams in this country. On that day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new PFF (Protein, Fat Free) regulation becomes the standard by which most of the hams and other cured pork products produced in the United States will be judged and labeled. In my opinion, it's a good regulation and should improve the quality of the hams generally available in the supermarket.
The new regulation is based on an evaluation of the meat protein, on a fat-free basis, present in the finished product rather than the amount of curing solution (basically water) left in the product after curing, which is what the old regulations were concerned with. When we buy meat, we are paying for meat protein, not water. This new regulation will give consumers much better assurance that they are getting what they pay for.
To better understand the new PFF regulations, a little ham history might help. Back in grandmother's day, people cured pork at hog-killing time in the fall by "putting-it-down" with salt, sugar and saltpeter (sodium nitrate) as preservatives. The pork was then hung in the ham house during the cold winter months.
While the low temperatures prevented the meat from spoiling, the pork absorbed the "cure," thus preserving the meat. After this curing process, the meat could withstand the warmer spring and summer temperatures without spoiling, providing a year-round supply of meat. It was a long, slow process.
Only a very small percentage of today's pork products are dry-cured the old-fashioned way. Most pork now is quick-cured with what is termed a "pickle." The curing ingredients--salt, sugar and sodium nitrite--are dissolved in water to form a curing solution (the pickle), which is injected into the meat by a process called "stitch pumping." Here, the curing solution is injected directly into the cut of meat at a number of points simultaneously. This method provides an even distribution of the curing solution throughout the meat in a matter of hours--even minutes--as opposed to the months required for cure penetration with the dry-curing process.
As these curing methods changed and modernized to take advantage of new processing technology, USDA regulations for hams and other cured pork products changed as well to ensure continued protection of the best interests of both consumers and the pork industry. The earliest regulations addressing only dry-cured products focused on product handling and sanitation and specified the amount and type of curing ingredients to be allowed.
With the development of stitch pumping, however, new demands were imposed upon the regulatory agency. The USDA had to ensure that the cured ham weighed no more than the leg of pork it was made from. Consumers should not be expected to pay ham prices for added water.
To do this, USDA inspectors checked compliance with federal requirements by weighing the product before and after curing, and further calculating the weight loss during any further processing to determine that the weight of the finished product did not exceed "green weight." The USDA inspector in many plants became a supervisor for the processor at the taxpayers' expense.
Then, to complicate things, along came canned hams. Obviously, hams cooked and sold in cans cannot release added water and therefore cannot come back to green weight in the process. New regulations were written to allow 8% added water in canned hams, with no special labeling required, except for the phrase "in natural juices" to explain to the consumer why there was all that juice and gelatin in the can.
Next came the contemporary technology that makes it possible to produce a product very much like a canned ham, but without the can. These are cooked and sold in the modern plastic packaging that, like the can, holds in all moisture. Unlike canned hams, these products were required to carry the label, "water added."
Food processors had a good deal of latitude in the amount of water that was actually added. USDA regulations specified no more than 10%, but until recently, processing technology did not permit precise control. More advanced processing methods, however, have allowed plants in recent years to take advantage of these tolerance levels. (Many "water added" products exceed the allowable 10% limit of the old standards by more than a little bit.)
The new PFF standards will change all that. They're not measuring water anymore; they're measuring protein. Under the new regulation, four categories of hams will be allowed and will be labeled as follows:
"Ham," if the product contains at least 20.5% protein after the fat has been removed.
"Ham With Natural Juices," if it is at least 18.5% protein.
"Ham--Water added," if the product is at least 17% protein.
"Ham and Water Product, XX percent of Weight Is Added Ingredients."
This last category allows for the use of other protein in the processing of pork products, but assures that consumers are informed with accurate labeling.
The new regulations will have no effect on those old-fashioned country hams still available in some parts of the country and well worth looking for, but those new fangled "city hams" you find in most supermarkets just may be getting better.