Needs addressed

Dry cured ham producers face a major problem related to the poor repeatability of the current dry curing manufacturing process, with direct implications on the product quality, and on manufacturing costs:

Product homogeneity

Presently, dry cured ham presents a large variability in terms of composition (salt and moisture), flavour and texture. Analytical data collected over 15 years by the “Istituto Parma QualitàIPQ”,show an average salt content of 5.8 g/100 g in 12 months old Parma hams. However, a significantly large standard deviation (11%) is reported in the IPQ Dossier 2015. Moreover, nearly 28% of DOP Parma overcame the upper salt limit established in Tutelary regulations for the average of sampled dryhams, corresponding to 6.2%. Such high dispersion in the average salt content is observed also when comparing data from individual processors, and highlights the poor repeatability of the manufacturing process. The variability is even higher in the
case of pile salting (Spanish process), for which the standard deviation is around twice that found in Parma hams.

Product quality

A significant part of the production does not meet the quality standards expected by consumers, due to excessive salt content, the presence of texture and colour defects, poor flavour, and/or excessive proteolysis. Dry cured hams not fulfilling meet quality requirements established by tutelary regulations (Protected Designation of Origin, General Rules and Dossier, Reg. EEC n° 2081/92 of July, 14th 1992; Prosciutto di Parma, Reg. (EC) No 1208/2013) cannot be branded. This has important economic implications, since the average market value of unbranded ham is nearly one half of the value of Parma ham. Beyond this, the worsening of the product quality has an important impact in the purchasing decision of consumers, as well as on the brand prestige and reputation.

Product losses

The lack of on line tools to assess the suitability of raw material to protracted dry curing procedures, makes it possible to process hams that are too lean and/or predisposed to high weight losses (PSE type meat). Furthermore, the onset of the defects known as ‘secco’ or ‘coquera’ in Parma and Serrano hams, respectively, is associated to the manufacturing of lean, PSE type fresh hams.

Technological problems

The inaccurate control the manufacturing process also results in the development of soft texture, due to inadequate salt uptake or drying. Soft textures compromise the product quality, and result in technological problems during slicing. It is estimated that up to 5% and 10% of the production of Serrano and Parma ham respectively, is lost during slicing due to the occurrence of soft textures. The unevenness occurring in dry curing outcomes is linked to the fact that the salt uptake and the drying processes are strongly dependent on raw ham properties. While industry has improved the control over the external process parameters (temperature, ambient humidity, salt humidity), little progresses has been made to assess and manage the influence of raw ham characteristics. Currently, ham weight and visual fat score are the only known variables, but only the ham weight is taken into account when establishing the salting and drying conditions. Nevertheless, several studies have shown the influence of ham fat and lean content, and of its
water holding capacity (WHC), on the dry curing process. The inherent variability of these parameters, and the fact that they are not currently taken into account, are the reasons for the strong dispersion found in the sensory properties, composition, and weight losses of dry cured ham.