A slice of ham, a mozzarella or a drop of olive oil can encapsulate titanic clashes involving lobbies and governments, EC regulations and national laws with patriotism, savvy marketing and shrewd pricing, as well as labels that say nothing or are written in gobbledygook. Caught in the cross-fire are Italy’s mistreated and ever more cash-strapped consumers.
What language does your ham speak?
For a few hours on Wednesday 4 December, militants from the Coldiretti farmers’ association halted the free circulation of goods, one of the EU’s founding principles. They unloaded refrigerated lorries and waved aloft pig thighs that looked unremarkable, except for the stamp on the skin saying Belgium, France, Holland or Germany. The farmers’ point is that Italian food processors import raw materials before packaging their products as Italian-made, gulling consumers and destroying jobs on the country’s farms. According to Coldiretti, some 57 million pig thighs were imported into Italy in 2013, compared with domestic production of 24.5 million. In effect, two out of three hams come from abroad. In reply Luisa Ferrarini, chair of the Confindustria-affiliated meat and meat product manufacturers’ association ASSICA, points out that all these thighs are processed in Italian factories. Both Coldiretti and ASSICA are telling the truth but the point is that there is no dialogue. Pig farmers claim that consumers would be able to make a better informed choice if they knew the provenance of the raw materials. Would they buy more expensive products? There is no evidence to the contrary. But the fact is that most consumers’ behaviour is contradictory. Surveys show they appreciate Italian-made products but when they’re standing in front of the supermarket shelf, they look no further than the price. Boiled ham costs anything from €9 to €40 a kilo, an astonishing range. Ms Ferrarini admits: “The industry offers an enormous variety of products. Demand in southern Italy, for example, is for very lean ham but the price has to be less than €12 a kilo. How can you make a ham like that if you don’t import the thighs?”
Pasta and tomatoes
Food processing companies argue as follows: true, we import an average of 30% of our raw materials but we control the processing and guarantee food quality and safety. We are not counterfeiters. Yet there’s something that doesn’t ring true. Let’s take pasta and tomatoes. These are part of Italy’s cultural and gastronomic DNA yet, as Coldiretti points out, Italy’s pasta factories get through 5.7 billion kilos a year of wheat from France, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Canada. Twisting the knife, the farmers’ association points out that food processors import 72 million tons of tomato concentrate from China, equivalent to almost 20% of Italy’s output of fresh tomato. We could talk about the way Italy farms for a long time. Food processors point to the structural inability of Italy’s highly fragmented system to meet the demand for cereals (we import almost 45% of our requirements). However, no manufacturer has ever really explained why the Tricolore flag features so prominently on pasta packets, along with more or less jingoistic appeals to patriotism. In other words, let’s leave the figures on imported wheat for the specialists but it’s better if consumers don’t know that their spaghetti sometimes speaks French, Hungarian or even (Canadian) English.
Oil, milk and labels
Should it be compulsory to indicate the origin of all ingredients on the label? The question divides the European Union. Italy’s “yes” comes up against “noes” from Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom, where food multinationals and supermarket chains are extremely influential. For the noes, the only thing that matters is the price, and how low it is. Everything else is taken care of by advertising and marketing, which can sometimes be misleading. Think Italian-sounding mozzarellas or yoghurts made with milk from Lithuania or Poland. This fierce clash of lobbies and governments leaves legislation in a state of semi-paralysis, occasionally with grotesque results. Want an example? Just read the label on a bottle of olive oil, one of the few sectors where the European Union has adopted common regulations. The most frequent indication is a masterpiece of political fudging: “Blend of olive oils of European Union origin”. What it means is that most of the olives come from Spain but the country is unnamed so that the Spanish food multinational, Deoleo, can present itself to consumers under one of its Italian labels (Carapelli, Bertolli, Sasso and San Giorgio). Oil pressed from Spanish, Greek or Portuguese olives in an attractive Italian-looking bottle.