I recently came across an article in the Wall Street Journal that piqued my interest. It seems a bunch of Italian food producers are becoming increasingly upset with manufacturers and purveyors of food products in other countries – particularly the US – who slap Italian flags and Italian or Italian-sounding words on their products in an effort to market them as authentic Italian goods. Collectively, they have launched the “Italianissimi project,” the overall objective of which is to educate American consumers about the importance of geographic origin for Italian food products and the concept of authenticity and guarantee.
The food culture of Italy is, by and large, the culture of Italy, second only to its artistic status as the birthplace of the Renaissance. It is a source of national pride, and people tend to get a little prickly when you poke them in the pride.
And it's not only a matter of national pride. Economics also enter the equation. According to Italian government statistics, “Italian sounding” products cause serious damage to the country’s food producers to the tune of more than 60 billion Euros, a figure which represents more than half the total value of Italian agricultural and food production and three times more than Italy’s exports in this sector.
The heart and soul of Italian cuisine are found in the quality of its ingredients and that quality has long been assured by tightly controlled and regulated production standards. These standards fall within the jurisdiction of European Union law under the auspices of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). In Italy, these terms translate to Denominazione di Origine Protetta or DOP and Indicazione Geografica Protetta or IGP. (Another system, known as the Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC is Italy's system for ensuring quality wines.) For the sake of consistency, I'll refer to the Italian designations, DOP and IGP.
These laws and regulations are intended to protect the names and standards of locally and regionally produced food products. According to the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, Italy has the greatest number of DOP and IGP products of any European nation. Only products that meet the vigorous criteria imposed under these systems qualify for protected status. There are also a variety of consortia dedicated to preserving the authenticity and integrity of their products.
DOP identifies a product that is made, processed and produced in a specific geographic area that has been thoroughly surveyed. The DOP designation is applied to products from a particular region/country having features that are primarily or exclusively attributable to the geographic environment (including natural and human elements) and that are produced and processed within the defined area.
In the case of IGP, at least one stage of production or processing of the product takes place within the designated area. In addition, the product has a certain reputation. IGP designates a native product of the region/country whose qualities/reputation/features can be attributed to its geographic origin, and whose production and/or processing take place within that area (at least one stage of production must take place within the designated area).
Consumers need to look for the DOP or IGP seals on authentic Italian products. In use since 2006, new regulations regarding color were introduced in May, 2010. A red and gold seal denotes a DOP product while a blue and gold seal is found on IGP products.
Needless to say, the United States has no such standards. That's why manufacturers can get by with making up words that end in vowels, pasting little bandiere on packaging, wrapping products in green, white and red, or employing phrases like “Italian-style” to entice gullible consumers into buying goods that they assume are authentic Italian. And that's why the Italians are understandably upset.
You can buy authentic Italian food products in the United States. They're everywhere nowadays. Much more so than in the not too distant past when you had to seek out an Italian specialty shop in an Italian neighborhood in order to buy a bottle of olive oil. My son lives in Italy and was lamenting on the phone the other day about how difficult the culinary transition will be when he eventually returns to the States. “Not so,” I assured him. The ethnic shops in the ethnic neighborhoods are still thriving and one can easily find authentic Italian ingredients in most high-end supermarkets these days. You just have to know what to look for.
This does not infer that every Italian-made product is superior to its American counterpart. That's usually the case because of America's sad proclivity for cheap and fast manufacturing. That said, if you buy an artisinal sausage made by the Italian guy in the shop down the street, you're undoubtedly buying a great sausage. But it still can't be represented as an authentic Italian product – even if it's made by an authentic Italian – unless it meets the established criteria.
From a consumer's standpoint, the crux of the matter lies in the fact that Genoa City, Wisconsin is not Genoa, Italy and you are not going to find stacks and piles of authentic, DOP or IGP sealed products on its grocery store shelves. If you want to be shocked and awed by the variety of authentic Italian food products available in the United States, head to Manhattan's Flatiron district and worship at the temple that is Mario Batali's “Eataly.” If you just want to prepare a decent Italian meal for family and friends, stop by your neighborhood supermarket. But watch what you buy. Not everything that says “Italy” is Italian.
To learn more about the Italianissimi project and how to identify real Italian food products, go to http://www.trueitalianfood.it.
Watch the blog. Over the course of the next few days I'll go in depth about a few common Italian supermarket offerings that often aren't really Italian. Parmesan cheese, for example. The crap in the green can is about as far from the real Italian product as the Earth is from the Moon. I'll fill you in about tomato products, dried pasta, olive oil, and Italian meat products, too.
Chi mangia bene mangia italiano.