Art, science and state inspection all part of curing country hams

by | Dec 12, 2016

Country hams curing in Nahunta's curing barn

Depending on their weight, country hams at Nahunta may cure for up to a year before they’re ready for sale.

Nestled in a barn on the Nahunta property in Pikeville are more than 8,000 hams in various stages of curing. And for many tables across our state, the holiday meal isn’t complete without a country ham.

Before your Christmas country ham gets to your table, it passes meat inspections by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. At Nahunta Pork Center, two full-time NCDA&CS inspectors ensure humane slaughter and safe handling of the company’s meat products. Paul Fredricksen and Tammy Thornton are the two inspectors assigned to Nahunta. Fredricksen is the inspector for the processing side, and Thornton is the inspector on the floor of the slaughter side.

Fredrickson checking the temperature

A plant employee checks the temperature.

Thornton’s days often begin at 4:30 a.m. It’s her responsibility to observe every animal before slaughter at rest and in motion, ensure humane handling during the slaughter process, and to check vital organs afterwards for signs of infection or abnormalities.

Fredricksen’s duties include checking to ensure that food is being processed at a temperature below 45 degrees, is labeled correctly, and that handling of the meat is safe and sanitary. If a problem is found, inspectors stop operations, take control of the product and do not release it until corrective action has been made. He gets to work early, often by 5 a.m., to observe pre-operation sanitation procedures.

Nahunta processes 500 pigs or more per week for a variety of pork products, including sausage, bacon and, of course, country ham.

“Hogs that are used for country hams for Christmas are slaughtered in summer and spend a few months, or longer, curing,” said Brandon Pearce, owner of the Nahunta Pork Center. “Hams are cured with a mixture of salt, sugar and sodium nitrate.”

A salt/sugar mixture is rubbed on the ham and it’s placed on a wooden shelf in a cold storage area where temperatures are kept around 45 degrees. Unlike many food prep areas that must be stainless steel or other nonporous surface, hams are cured on hardwood shelving because the salt mixture could react with metal shelves. “You let the salt penetrate the ham for about a day and a half per pound, and then rinse and salt again,” Pearce said. “Hams will often be salted and rinsed up to five times. We then use an ice pick to penetrate the ham to make sure it’s cured all the way through. Hams are then hung in a drying room, kept about 80 degrees, to finish the curing process. A 50-pound ham could be cured for up to a year. After a ham is properly cured, it is ready to eat and can last indefinitely.”

When asked if curing hams is an art or a science, Pearce’s reply was yes. “How to preserve a ham is spelled out in regulation,” he said. “The hams are required to cure a certain amount of time and to lose a certain amount of water weight. But we are not restricted for how long a ham cures and we have a lot of experience.”

Plant safety operations, and state inspectors, ensure these regulations are met for all products being sold.

“Our meat and poultry inspectors play a vital role in the livestock and meat industry in our state,” said Dr. Beth Yongue, assistant director of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division. “We have 85 inspectors located across North Carolina whose job is to supervise the humane slaughter of animals and to make sure the processing plant is in compliance with state and federal laws. Some places, like Nahunta, have their own inspectors assigned. Others share inspectors with other plants. However, facilities that slaughter must have a state inspector on site during operation.”

“We pride ourselves on selling everything but the oink in our meat cases,” Pearce said. “This includes chitterlings (pronounced CHIT-lins), souse meat, cracklins, liver pudding and even Tom Thumb, which is hog appendix stuffed with sausage. During the holidays, we also sell more than 150,000 pounds of our country link sausage.”

Nahunta pork products are available at their retail center in Pikeville and at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. The company also delivers its product to about two dozen restaurants, including Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro.