In times of trouble the United States has historically turned to a tin of pink processed meat to see it through – and so it is again that sales of Spam are soaring as the recession bites.
They have shot up by more than 10 per cent in the past three months and the Hormel Foods Corporation has had to introduce a double shift at its factory in Austin, Minnesota, seven days a week to keep up with demand.
Spam costs only about $2.40 (£1.65) for a 12-ounce tin and keeps for ever, which earned it the slogan: meat with a pause button. Hungry consumers, desperate to cut back on spending but keen to put meat on the table, have been buying the product that “helped win the Second World War”.
The rise coincides with a record level of Americans using food stamps, the programme that helps the needy to buy food. More than 31.5 million Americans used the stamps in September – up by 17 per cent from a year ago, according to government data.
Spam was invented during the Great Depression by Jay Hormel, the son of the founder of the company. It is a brick of ham, pork, sugar, salt, water, potato starch and a hint of sodium nitrite “to help Spam keep its gorgeous pink color”.
Austin advertises itself as Spam-town and it boasts 13 restaurants with Spam on the menu. Johnny’s Spamarama menu includes eggs benedict with Spam for $7.35.
Employees are working flat out and next door the slaughter house butchers 19,000 pigs a day. “People are realising it’s not that bad a product,” said Dan Johnson, 55, who operates a 70ft (20m) oven in the factory.
Swen Neufeldt, the group product manager at Hormel Foods, told The Times: “The Spam family of products continues to be a favourite of families across the US as evident by its continued rise in sales. Over the past three months sales have been stronger than expected.” He said that the good value of the product made it appealing in uncertain economic times but it was the “distinct, savoury and cravable taste experience” that really mattered.
During the Second World War Spam became a staple food for Allied troops. It remains popular in many parts of the world where the troops were stationed. The citizens of Guam eat about 16 cans each a year. It is sold in more than 45 countries and the range includes Spam with real bacon, Spam Lite, Spam fritters, Spam spreaders, Spam with black pepper and Spam.
Austin has a Spam Museum where visitors can learn how the meat is produced. The ground meat mixture is squirted into cans, sealed and cooked, and there is an interactive display where people can try their hand at making Spam.
In The Book of Spam written by Dan Armstrong and Dustin Black there are more Spam facts than anyone would want to remember, such as that Hawaii is America’s Spam state and all the fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s, have Spam on the menus.
“I think psychologically it goes to a deeper core issue: it’s comfort food,” Mr Black said. “People remember it from the Forties and Fifties, and that was the golden era in their memories.”
Spam, Spam, Spam . . .
1936 Jay C. Hormel develops a spiced ham and pork luncheon meat
1959 One billion tins of Spam sold, enough to go around the world twice
1970 Spam becomes a food icon (and the object of scorn) after the Monty Python sketch is broadcast
1991 Official Spam museum opens in Austin, Minnesota. The museum attracts more than 60,000 people annually. Spam Lite is introduced
2002 The six billionth can is sold
2006 Stinky French Garlic Spam is introduced in celebration of Spamalot, the musical, in London
December 6, 2008
Mike Harvey in San Francisco
Source: The Times