/The Made in Italy Paradox

The Made in Italy Paradox

Liquid Smoke
“Smoked” cheese that gets its flavor from Liquid Smoke. This is legal!

Back in July I wrote this post on responsible food tourism and its comments got me thinking even more about food ethics in Italy. Between pouring over EU food regulations and the packaging of food in my cabinets, I worked myself into a tizzy that would have make Howard Beale proud.

It seems the more I think about the business of food marketing, the more cynical and angry I become. I want to eat good, fresh, seasonal, ethical food but this is a difficult and time consuming task, even in this so-called food mecca called Italy.

Unless one buys directly from a small producer, is it really possible to know how food is made and where it is coming from? Sure, there are government regulations that determine labeling that come from the EU, the Italian state, and regional governments. But keeping them all straight is no easy task.

The best known government seals are the wine (DOCG, DOC, IGT) and food (DOP, IGP) appellations. There are also additional accolades given by consortia and private entities like Slow Food that attest to a product’s cultural value. Unfortunately, these do not give absolute guarantees for an item’s safety, provenance, or quality and the food and wine business, like any other, is susceptible to fraud.

In the past few years alone, the Corpo Forestale dello Stato and other government entities concerned with food and wine regulation enforcement have discovered far too many imitation products on the market. Here are the greatest hits:

Bottles of 2003 Brunello di Montalcino (DOCG), a wine that can only be made with Sangiovese grosso grapes were cut with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and syrah.

Bottles of Chianti Classico (DOCG) were cut with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (DOC).

Aceto balsamico di Modena was actually made in Afragola near Naples, far from the legally permitted territory of production.

Fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella) was sold and priced as mozzarella di bufala (DOP).

In addition to these clear acts of fraud, there are more subtle ways in which consumers are duped. Labeling products as “made in Italy” when, 1) they are not, or 2) they are actually made from foreign ingredients assembled in Italy, is an issue that is getting a lot of attention in the Italian media right now.

Paolo Berizzi’s article in last week’s La Repubblica focused on the issue of provenance. The piece goes something like this: milk, wheat, tomatoes, and pork enter Italy from abroad (Germany, Holland, Denmark, Canada, Greece, China, etc). These ingredients go into items labeled “made in Italy”. Companies cash in on a ridiculous savings of 40% on production, the consumer is charged a high price, said companies pocket the exorbitant profit.

Now I have nothing against foreign ingredients being used in Italian products. On the contrary, Italian cuisine as we know it today owes some of its most iconic components to foreign ingredients (eggplants, citrus, tomatoes, for example). And I am not certainly not of the same mind as Luca Zaia who wants to “protect” Italian food culture from what he calls adulterating foreign influences, a ridiculous objective that clearly shows his ignorance about Italian cuisine. But I cannot tolerate foreign products being passed off and priced as though they are Italian.

If it costs less to use ingredients from outside Italy–Berizzi quotes a 40% difference–then the product should cost less than one made with ingredients from Italy. And if the EU prohibits misleading labeling for food products, then all items labeled “product of Italy” should include provenance details.

So I would argue that Italy’s 60 billion euro a year food business is at least partially built on robbing a mislead public. The paradox is that this approach has and will continue to diminish consumer confidence in the “made in Italy” label. I sure hope the culprits enjoy their quick buck while it lasts.

2016-01-09T13:33:53+00:00 September 6th, 2010|Categories: Culture, Food & Wine, Gastronomic Traditions, Wine & Spirits|17 Comments


  1. Elizabeth September 7, 2010 at 7:04 am - Reply

    This is not new at all, and has been going on for years with not only government approval, but government support. Go to Sicily and most of the citrus groves and tomato farms are abandoned, with produced shipped in, packaged and then sent off with a Sicily label. Ditto for olive oil in Puglia, most of which comes from Turkey, Greece and Spain. But it’s all legal. In fact, EU and Italian rules and regulations actually work against small producers like those that craft lardo and culatello in favor of big time prosciutto di parma industries. I could go on and on….So, yes, know your producer when possible. Seek out trusted vendors who do same.

  2. Mario September 7, 2010 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Despite this being very annoying, it is heartening to hear that these issues get exposed in the media and that various government agencies care enough about the consumer to uncover and investigate the issues.

    Compare this to the US where those seeking to make a quick buck have been unhindered by the media, public and politicians for decades.

    I wish what was happening over there was happening over here!

  3. Marko September 7, 2010 at 10:03 am - Reply

    A nice article on practice that now almost has roots in Italy. Note that some of the biggest delicacies are sourced in Croatia, then sold as Italian. White Alba truffles actually come from Istria; fish comes from the Adriatic, but the Dalmatian side of the coast; small birds are hunted for in Slavonia. Ofcourse, produce is smuggled over the border to Slovenia, then Italy where it is sold for x times the price.

  4. ann connolly September 7, 2010 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Somewhere before p 110 (where I am now)in Donna Leon’s “A Sea of Troubles”is a marvelous discussion of fishing issues in Venice area. Lots of “regulations” but no enforcement so the characters “in the know” stop eating clams, as one example. Katie, if you do not already read Donna Leon, you would love her. Origanally from NJ (!!!!) she has lived in Venice for more than 20 years. And from the sound of it, she loves food as much as you do! I feel I am in your company when I am reading one of her nineteen mysteries. ann

  5. Sarah May September 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    It is not just food. At Termini there is a show shop that has signs all over the store that say “MADE IN ITALY” and then, when one looks at the bottom of the shoe, it says, “Made in China?” Are consumers in Italy dumb? Is that why they think they can do this? Do they not care? I have myself witnessed the pigs coming into Italy from abroad. Go on the Autostrada from Bologna to Venice and ever other truck is a dutch truck filled with pigs going to be used to make Prosciutto(made in Italy?) Holland is such a small country that there is no way possible for them to supply the pork loving Italian market without the use of factory farms. What is the price I wonder? Maybe the pigs fatten up in Italy, but they are born and raised in Holland on factory farms, full of disease and antibiotics. And now the E.U. is allowing GMOs to be fed to animals. They say it will not affect humans, but humans will consume those animals and their products. With animal products there is too much desire and not enough space in the world to produce made in Italy. It makes me sad. I feel like I missed out on the best of Italian food and wine. The Brunello and Chianti scandals are ubiquitous of a bigger worldwide problem in wine and that is that wine makers seem to be making wine for one person’s palate, an international palate where wines all taste the same, jammy, woody, oaky and vanilla with no mineral or personality That is what the public wants and so winemakers try to appease them. Even the COOP in Genzano offers the DOP Pane di Genzano. It is gross and tastes like cardboard.

  6. Sarah May September 7, 2010 at 3:16 pm - Reply

    And don’t even get me started on the Blue tuna regulations that are never enforced. I guess when they are all gone someone will blow the whistle. Anyone who lives in Italy knows that regulations and laws are suggestions. Except in Alto Adige.

  7. Giuseppe di Martino September 7, 2010 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    I am an Italian foodproducer and I confess that sometimes I am ashamed of what I see, abroad specially, labelled as Italian food. Italian food on average tends to be better then some others becouse we love food. Italians, have always, celebrated people that prepare food, the family still being the center of our life even if less and less nowadays, leads italian people to sit around a table at least once a day, and while we eat we talk about food. When my mum calls me at night before going to bed the first question she asks is what did you eat today and what did the children, and where, if she is satisfied she goes ahead with other subjects. Regionality and the 3000 years of civilization, and natural conditions, made italian food very rich and interesting. Labelling and controls can never be enough, I believe that thieves will always be much more than the policemen everywhere. Systems helps, and docs and docgs are quite serious systems, you get to know about fake products just because they are controlled much more than others. My opinion is that labels and producers of food should be completely transparent telling what are the ingredients, and where they come from,and so I do for what I do, but the best system is your tongue, you have to exercise your palate and reading and learning about food should lead you to buy and eat the right things, because then you already know what to expect from a good balsamic vinegar, regarldess of what is written on the label. Thanks for the hospitality and “buonappetito”

  8. […] Unless one buys directly from a small producer, is it really possible to know how food is made and where it is coming from?… ~ The Made in Italy Paradox […]

  9. Gabriel Hummel September 8, 2010 at 5:04 am - Reply

    Unfortunately this holds true in many regions of the world.

    Going on a a tangent the equivalent of hitting mars when aiming for pluto….

    People often wonder why there is a line out the door on a Friday night at a Church’s chicken in Detroit, Michigan.

    It isn’t because they don’t give a damn about eating healthfully, nutrient dense, locally sourced food, its because they cant damn well afford the time and money it takes to get good food.

    I am sure that the majority of us will agree that it is utter bullshit.

    I say we sick PETA on regulators.

  10. Sarah May September 8, 2010 at 1:16 pm - Reply

    @Gabriel You are right, it is not just in Italy. I have read many articles regarding why there is a line on a Friday night outside of a Churches. One argument is that the localvore food movement is classist and/or racist. the truth is that Lower class neighbors have a disproportionally high amount of fast food chains and quickie marts than more upper class neighborhoods. There are many neighborhoods in the states that don’t even have grocery stores where people have access to healthier food. The end result are areas and regions that have higher rates of bad health.
    For the record, as a vegan, I do not support PETA. This is mostly because their tactics are sexist and they are media whores, but also they promote a very unhealthy form of the vegetarian diet which is full of packaged meat replacement products and vegan junk food. Which brings me back to local food.
    In the last 10 Anniversary issue of VegNews there is a wonderful article about Veganism and Classicism which I think could apply to the localvore movement as well.
    The point of the article, though is not about classism in food but the Made in Italy paradox. The fact that something is marketed in a way to promote this idea of Made in Italy and it is a hoax sometimes. It makes me very sad and makes me question if I am also a victim. I mean, I make a point to buy things with the bio and made in Italy labels. Are these now just popular marketing catch phrases?

  11. Katie September 8, 2010 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    @Elizabeth of course this is nothing new, though I think the realization of these facts is more pervasive than ever. know your producer and seek out trusted vendors who do same is sound advice.

    @Mario I would say that the american media and intellectuals have been instrumental in awakening consumers to the ills of factory food. on the contrary, politicians have been instrumental in destroying food culture and adulterating food production.

    with every trip home to the states, i see a growing number of farmer’s markets, slow food chapters, and restaurants dedicated to making fresh, seasonal food. and overall the food culture has changed in many cities/towns for the better as a result. instead, over here, i see more and more supermarkets opening each year, more fast food and junk food consumed, fewer artisinal bakeries, butchers, small produce vendors. and im not sure the Italian media is really on top of this as they should be. The article by Berizzi is incredibly vague and doesn’t name names. It highlights an issue but like many other articles published on this topic, it doesnt show a true desire to report with data but plays on people’s emotions and food nationalism. what was your take on it?

    @Marko Croatia has incredible food and delicacies and it is ashamed that they are not advertised as such!

    @Ann Ooh a Jersey girl! I love it! I think the author must be referring to the dioxin contamination of clams and other shellfish that was a serious issue years back. the lagoon’s ecosystem is very fragile and these outbreaks aren’t completely uncommon so you really have to rely on your local fish purveyor to sell or serve the good stuff. i go to Al Fonetgo dei Pescatori and Lolo hooks up the best and cleanest seafood. And as the head of the Venice fish market, his is definitely in the know and stakes his reputation on providing the healthiest seafood. We should go sometime:)

    @Sarah May ah yes i yearn for the glory days of italian rural farm culture, too. but then i chose to live in rome, so i only catch glimpses of it when i travel. a favorite destination is salento where the contadino still sells giuncata in the main squares and i can forage for arugula, figs, and prickly pears, and dive for sea urchins and baby octopus.

    Of course I am completely against factory farms but they are the product of a demand that cannot be reached with italian-raised livestock alone. this is a complex problem and im afraid the press isnt quite as aggressive on exposing this fact as they should be. further, if only italian pigs were used in prosciutto production, there would be less of it, it would be more expensive, and people would protest the high prices…double edged sword?

    @Giuseppe yes labeling is a step in the right direction. having a transparent labeling system that tracks the ingredients would be ideal. and i think educating consumers is important, as you say. an informed consumer may be frustrated at first, but will reap the benefits of knowing what quality is and satisfying her palate in the process.

    i think it is irresponsible for journalists or the head of coldiretti to speak about foreign ingredients as though they are less safe or that they are somehow inferior when, often, that is not true. a very respectable food historian in italy recently wrote that much of the wheat grown in italy is in fact replanted eastern european strains, which do better that native crops. it reminds me of the planting of american root stocks in europe in the late 19th century after the Phylloxera epidemci…and the rest, they say, is history.

    @Gabriel you bring up an interesting point here. just last night i was reading this piece on the Atlantic Food Channel and the author states:

    at the time when Americans were getting fat on increasingly cheap junk food, healthy food was becoming increasingly cheap as well. Evidently, consumers have chosen to take advantage of the declining prices for the cookies rather than the apples, thereby undermining the claim that we choose cheap unhealthy food because it’s cheap. As it turns out, we also choose it because we appear to like it better than cheap healthy food.

    good food is out there, but as long as humans have free will, they will choose what they like, and for some it is church’s chicken. i admit that in college in New Haven i queued more than once a bucket of Popeye’s fried chicken. ain’t no shame in it, though, because now i know what good chicken is supposed to taste like.

    I can’t even talk about PETA. ok 2 words: crackpot extremists:)

  12. Gabriel Hummel September 8, 2010 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    Spot on points ladies and gentlemen. We certainly have created our own tea party with this discussion.

    Hopefully in time the Italian food wont be equated with Olive Garden and Maggiano’s, and a 10pc bucket of fried chicken will cost the same as 3 lbs of free range chicken.

    On a side note, PETA has been classified as a terrorist group by the USDA…..true story.

  13. Giuseppe di Martino September 9, 2010 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Katie I agree totally with you!
    the article on Repubblica does not say that, most of the things they want to uncover are perfectly legal, still they are afraid to say which company does what also because most of this compaies invest in communication on theyr newspapers or magazines.
    Nationalism is completely wrong, but in Italy people have been scared by chinese colored milk, bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease or dangerous toys form china that “shut our beautiful toys factories” , and you normally are scared of what you don’t control.
    I have spent 5 years with Coldiretti and other farmers organisations representatives, theyr goals most of the times was personal political success and the only way I succeeded in my objective was to jump in a field one day and and talk directly with the farmers one by one and convince them.
    Napoli is a natural port and this has left the town open since ever to exchange of cultures, races, habits, and food, this has made Neapolitan food and people interesting. I love Slow Food and any other organisation that seriously helps consumers to understand what good food should be, but not when they become unbeatable organisations (eataly?).
    Last thing,
    1 dish of tomato sauce pasta:
    120 grams (very large dish) of the most expensive pasta in Italy= 1$
    1/4 of a can of the most expensive tomatoes in Italy= 0,65$
    1 table spoon of the most expensive olive oil in Italy= 0,15$
    1 clove of organic singing and dancing garlic=0,05$
    TOTAL = 1,85$ per serving
    but you could have a good selection of all above at less than 1$ .
    six months ago we made an exercise and prepared 4 weeks menu for a family of four cooked lunch and dInner, very healthy, for less then 100 Euros per week.

  14. Mario September 10, 2010 at 4:17 am - Reply


    Io non sono italiano! Seriously, it’s just a name I picked that seemed appropriate (along with the email address I gave).

    Thus I could not read the article you referred to.

    I agree about the upsurge in America but that is for the few. The masses remain uneducated / uninterested and while the politicians are responsible, it is, for me, also a result of the way the media dumbs down issues for those very same masses.

    America celebrates it’s food through brands and money making food inventions the way it does for anything else in popular culture. Oreo Cookies, stringy cheese, smores, simplistic labelling of cheese as american, swiss etc, are as american as Disney, a Corvette, Nike, Tiger Woods etc

    Food is just another element of the American cultural / lifestyle element where man made artificial is good because America became great through industry and invention and by mastering the natural world. Now the word Natural is incorporated for lifestyle purposes, to trick most people into buying something that isn’t what it says it is. Most things labelled natural in the US are fake. Natural flavors are not really natural. 80% of corn is genetically modified. Big brands will say their milk is RGBH free but their other dairy products are not (while RGBH is banned in Europe).

    Even if the politicians allow this, why are the media not exposing it?

    I am sure Italy, like Japan, like France, like India, like China, is not going to be immune to the lure of the American cultural image. But at least the national identify incorporates a food culture that people can easily be drawn back to. National pride I think will eventually win the day, whereas in America, national pride, from a food perspective, is always going to lead you to something pretty dire.

  15. Sarah May September 10, 2010 at 11:29 am - Reply

    @ Gabriel the USDA is corrupt anyway. They own the brand “organic.” in the States. And are paid off by the large meat and dairy industry.

    @Giuseppe, interesting about the prices. Once my husband and I had €1 and decided to see if we could make dinner. We bough half a loaf of Genzano bread, two oranges and some sea salt. A traditional poor mans dinner in the winter in Genazano. With some sea salt and olive oil(from our own trees) we had a terrific meal.
    Besides Food, Inc, there are some interesting food and agriculture documentaries. One is Food Matters, Another is One man, One Cow, One Planet(biodynamics), and Dirt: The Movie.

    @Katie, you are more than welcome to come up to the “burino” parts! Come pick olives!!

    I love Salento. I went to my first Slow Food festival there years ago and had an epiphany. Are you Salentina?

  16. Katie September 10, 2010 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    @Gabriel I can just see it: Il Giardino di Olive on the square opposite the Pantheon. Kidding! Aw it makes me gag just to think about that.

    @Giuseppe I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really support the whole Eataly model which I find quite monopolistic and contrived. I like the idea of heading out to the fields as you have and getting to know producers rather than heading into a massive shop where only a select number of producers are represented.

    I love the calculation. Did you blog about this? I think it would make a fantastic post!

    @Mario sorry! that was rather presumptuous of me to assume you were Italian. apologies! hmm…i guess it is hard to sell the story “Your food is poison!” ad nauseum in the US media. sensationalist BS, yes. health stories, no. nevertheless, i am still optimistic about US food culture, because i see it improving in the northeast, where i am from, and where i return twice a year. this summer, jersey produce was better than ever and we have lots of new small farms cropping up. people are changing their eating customs and that is good news!

    @Sarah May when does your raccolto start? id love to come out to Genzano and pick olives! just say the word and im there:) I am not Salentina (newgersiana suntu!) but it feels like my home.

  17. Sarah May September 15, 2010 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    @Katie, will do. We are going to do it as a neighborhood coop, my neighbor has about 80 trees, we have about 23, though we think only half are producing anything this year. We may also harvest the nonno’s trees in Lanuvio.

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