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Spaniards Snap Up Holiday Hams, Even After Cancer Warning

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Spanish hams hang from the ceiling at <em>Museo del Jamón</em>, a ham bar in downtown Madrid.

In Madrid, Museo del Jamón, which isn't a museum but a chain of bars, sells special ham backpacks, for carrying a whole ham leg — hoof and all — around town at the holidays. Spanish airports have special luggage rules for them. A leg of ham is the most popular family gift at Christmas. Every self-respecting Spanish household has a jamonera — a kitchen countertop rack on which to mount and cut slices off a ham leg.

"It's the ingredient we use most in Spain — essential to our cooking and to our lives," says Jesus Engamo, a ham cutter who has worked at the museum for 35 years. "We can't live without it!"

So when the World Health Organization warned in October that eating 50 grams a day of processed meat — defined as including anything cured or salted, like Spanish ham — can raise your risk of cancer, Spaniards were aghast. (On average, Spaniards eat 140 grams of pork a day, though there's no official breakdown of how much of that is cured or processed versus fresh.)

"I think it's a lie! It's what other countries say when they're jealous of Spain because we have the ham," says Asunción Claudios, 25, sharing a plate of jamón ibérico with friends at the Museo.

She closes her eyes as she places a paper-thin, almost translucent slice of jamón on her tongue. It's got to be a conspiracy, she says.

"I'm inclined to say Germany is behind this," she says, straight-faced. "Sure, they have sausage there — but it's no jamón. Other countries are jealous."

There is no evidence whatsoever that Germany or any pork-producing competitor put the WHO up to its cancer warnings. And Spain's ham industry has balked at its products being described as unhealthy, lumped in with other processed meat, like hot dogs.

"My first reaction was, 'I can't believe it!' We have a lot of studies that say just the opposite," says Ricardo Mosteo, president of the Denomination of Origin (D.O.), a ham quality-assurance board, in the region of Teruel, south of Madrid.

Last summer, a scientific study funded by the meat industry of Andalusia, another Spanish region, found that cured Spanish ham is free of the toxoplasmosis parasite found in other uncooked meats, and thus safe for pregnant women.

Groups like the Spanish Jamón Serrano Foundation claim local ham is ideal for people on diets, the elderly, or athletes. The group's website says jamón cuts cholesterol and boosts childhood growth and athletic performance.

NPR could not independently verify the research methods or conclusions of those studies.

But with the WHO findings, Mosteo says his phone has been ringing off the hook, with queries from journalists as well as confused ham consumers.

"I wasn't very worried, but then journalists started phoning me, [asking] 'What do you think?' " he says. "And I realized, OK, this is going to be a problem for us."

The sale of ham legs alone is a $1.65 billion industry in Spain, and 50 percent of sales happen in the weeks before Christmas, Mosteo says.

He predicts a marketing shift, with Spanish ham producers describing their products as organic, to be consumed in small quantities, as a luxury item. But Mosteo says there's been no perceptible drop in ham sales so far this holiday season.

Back on Madrid's Gran Vía, the Méson El Jamón — the house of ham — has a pork leg wearing a Santa hat on its storefront. Inside, another ham specialist is chopping jamón serrano for croquetas — bechamel dumplings.

"Here we're actually selling more ham since the WHO warning," says Angel Contera. "There's an urgency to enjoy it now. If jamón is bad for us, what will we live on?"

He sighs and puts down his knife. He's taking a break — going out for a smoke.

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