The Made in Italy Paradox

Written by Katie Parla on September 6, 2010

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.

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