Four highly intensive days with the focus on pig production, was the description given by the organisers to the 49th Rassegna Suinicola Internazionale pig fair held in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The topics on the table at the biennial show were led by Italian accounts of the European Union's anti-pollution Nitrate Directive and its potential developments, health issues and rising production costs, with producers warning that the industry in Italy faced a grim crisis.

Between mid-2006 and early 2007 their average price per kilogram liveweight had fallen from 1.39 to 1.05. Showtime calculations by farm economics bureau CRPA indicated a typical carcase production cost in 2006 of approximately 1.29/kg, although one of the larger Italian integrators was quoting 1.10/kg for units in 2007.

Giandomenico Gusmaroli, president of national producer association ANAS, noted how EU pig prices in 2006 had gained first from a consumer vote for pork spurred by avian influenza in poultry and then from foot-and-mouth disease reducing Brazilian meat exports. But increased consumption of pigmeat in Italy was met by bringing in extra imports rather than by raising home production. Signs even appeared of a contraction in Italian exports.

Worse still, reduced quantities of the world-famous Parma hams have been bought in the last few years as families in Italy have seen their purchasing power fall and more processed-ham competitors have appeared. Said Mr Gusmaroli, this has occurred alongside a concentration of production on larger units that have been able to create a branded product at retail level. Quality-certified pigmeat of a protected denomination was Italy's strength and needed to be safeguarded.

When interviewed by Pig International, however, the chairman of Italian meat processors' association ASSICA offered the hope that the depressed producer prices of early 2007 would prove to be short-term. There are too many pigs on the market, declared Ugo Sassi, who is also president of Parma-based processing company Sassi Industria Macellazione. Consumption this year was down, too, but that should be no more than a temporary blip.

"Italy has a huge market for fresh pork as well as for processed meat products, which is a bonus for Italian pig producers," Mr Sassi commented. "Our country imports 40% of the pork she consumes. About 80% of the imported volume is ham for cooking and these imports are from the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium.

"The Parma ham consortium in this country had just started a charter identification scheme to increase sales. But we always face the problem that while the hams might fetch a good price, our heavy pigs also give us large amounts of other cuts to sell. The higher production cost of selling at up to 160kg spreads across all the animal, of course."

The processors' association is promoting increased exports of salami to traditional key consumers France and Germany, plus newer markets such as USA, Brazil and Japan. Promotions are taking place to increase the uptake of Italian pork products in Tokyo's 500-plus restaurants. On the home front the association battles to prevent European legislators introducing a ban on the surgical castration of boar pigs.

"How can we stop castrating our pigs when they are sure to sexually mature by the time they are marketed?" Mr Sassi asks. "It would be impossible. Our hams are cured using salt alone so any odour or taint from a non-castrated pig would be a problem. What is more, a certain amount of fat is needed in the ham. Leaving males entire would result in carcases that were too lean for the Parma ham trade."