The Italian Anti-Vivisection League (LAV), which obtained footage filmed secretly at six pig farms in northern Italy, says it found animals kept in crowded, dirty stalls infested with mice and well below the standards set by the European Union for the humane rearing of livestock.
Pigs had no opportunity to go outside and were forced to eat and sleep in the same area they used as a toilet, the group said. Some animals showed signs of injuries and infections that required urgent medical care, according to LAV, while many had had their tails docked – a practice banned by EU law.
Other horror stories reported by the investigation include the bodies of dead pigs left lying next to enclosures and animals chewing on each other's ears, snouts and limbs out of boredom.
Warning: this video contains images you may find distressing.
It is not clear how many of the pigs ended up in Parma ham. According to LAV, the footage showed tattoos indicating that the pigs were destined for use in the cured pork on animals at four of the six farms.
The farms in question are intensive rearing sites in Brescia, Mantua and Cremona in Lombardy, each housing between 3,000 and 10,000 pigs at a time.
They represent a fraction of the 4,000 farms in ten Italian regions that supply the makers of Parma ham, who typically do not raise pigs but purchase meat from slaughterhouses ready to be cured.
Yet activists say the problems they found are indicative of wider failings.
"The plight of these pigs raises the question of why even minimum European pig welfare standards are not implemented in the production of some of Italy's top products of excellence, such as Parma ham," said European animal welfare lobbying organization Eurogroup for Animals, of which LAV is a member.
"One can only conclude that animal welfare enforcement mechanisms fail at every level."
Parma ham bears the EU's prestigious "protected designation of origin" label, which certifies food and drink that comes from a particular geographical area and is made according to time-honoured production techniques. It's one of Italy's most famous foods at home and abroad, representing more than €1 billion euros of sales each year.
Branded Parma ham. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP
"How much more misleading can a product be for consumers: animals raised for Italy's most prestigious cured meat are being treated in ways that are illegal and deeply immoral, while consumers are asked to pay a premium price," said the director of Eurogroup for Animals, Reineke Hameleers.
The Parma Ham Consortium, which represents Italy's authorized producers, accused animal rights groups of a smear campaign.
"The consortium reiterates that none of its 145 producer members has ever been reported for or convicted of animal cruelty, and we urge those behind these allegations to come forward and immediately report the farms in question so that the competent authorities can proceed with the necessary inspections," its statement said.
The consortium "will always condemn every violation of the fundamental standards of animal welfare, which are criminal and intolerable acts in a civilized society", it said, while adding that it fell to Italian and European authorities to check that farms comply with legal standards.