The 12th annual matanza, an event that’s been called a pig roast with side dishes, is back on in Belen, New Mexico.

The event, expected to attract 15,000 and raise scholarship money for mostly Hispanic students, was cancelled after a run-in with USDA that was blamed on “miscommunication and misinterpretation.” 

Getting one of New Mexico’s top regional cultural events back on track took the intervention Thursday of none other than Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator Alfred Almanza.

The Washington D.C.-based Almanza held a teleconference Thursday with the matanza sponsor, the Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce.  

The Hispano chamber had decided to cancel the hugely popular event, originally scheduled for Jan. 28, 2012, after a regional compliance officer for FSIS told the group that its $10 admission charge was enough for USDA to assert its jurisdiction, and require that the only pork served be from a certified facility.

According to a report in the Valencia County News-Bulletin, the Hispano Chamber said that would turn a traditional cultural event into the equivalent of a backyard barbecue. Rather than play by USDA rules, the sponsors cancelled the event that was to be held in Belen, 32 miles south of Albuquerque.

After the teleconference with the FSIS administrator, what’s billed as the world’s largest matanza is back on, but the date and place are up in the air.  

On Thursday, the sponsors decided to move ahead after Almanza told them they could proceed based on his regulatory discretion and that USDA would not attend the event. “There will be no red tags or fines,” said the Chamber’s Edward Calabaza. 

The FSIS administrator declined to provide the sponsors with anything in writing, but did promise to work on issues with them in the future.

“We are going to stay true to our traditions. I can’t stress that enough,” said VCHCC president Yvonne Sanchez.

Since 2000, the Belen matanza has raised more than $100,000 in scholarships for more than 200 college-bound students from the largely Hispanic community.

With 15,000 attending, the matanza is — among other elements– one big pig roast with pretty much everyone leaving happy except for the pigs. They are slaughtered and roasted on site.

 “A traditional matanza is a family and community-gathering event, with friends and neighbors helping in the labor-intensive job of processing a large pig, goat or sheep,” explains New Mexico cultural researcher Cynthia Martin. “Taking at least an entire day, the process goes from slaughtering the animal and butchering the meat to cooking the various meat products and preparing what is left for distribution and storage. Of course, all those helpers also need to be fed, so the women in the family plan and prepare large amounts of food for the event.”

Martin says winter is the traditional season for the event because the cooler weather makes it easier to prevent spoilage. 

At Belen, the matanza tradition was reborn with food safety in mind, if not the finer points of the FSIS rulebook. The Hispano chamber sponsors food-handling and training sessions before the annual event, and since 2005 there have been on-site inspections from New Mexico health department inspectors. 

“For 11 years approximately 75,000 people have eaten at our matanza and there never have been any reports of food-related illness,” Sanchez says.   

She says if they were to follow USDA rules, they “might as well walk across the street and buy our meat at Walmart.”

The reason the matanza for 2012 was to be cancelled was that an FSIS regional compliance official took the position that the $10 the Hispano chamber charged made it a commercial event where only USDA-certified pork could be served.

Sanchez says the $10 is for participating in the cultural event, namely watching the whole process that involves cleaning and gutting hog carcasses, butchering and cooking the meat.

USDA’s point man with the Hispano chamber was Albuquerque-based Robert Leskowsky, western region compliance manager, until the administrator took over.

When the event was cancelled, USDA came under heavy fire.

In an editorial aimed directly at the regulators, Belen’s News-Bulletin wrote: “It’s actually eliminating a tradition that we here in Valencia County, in New Mexico, have been doing for hundreds of years. Matanzas are part of our culture, our heritage.”

”While the chamber has done almost everything it can do to make sure that the matanza isn’t lost to future generations; we all now must do what we can to help them keep our tradition alive. We encourage everyone — from our local, state and national elected officials to the regular, everyday chicharone connoisseur — to stand up for what’s right and demand the USDA back off.”