Producers outraged by huge industry in 'Italian' foods that aren't

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Italian producers have launched a campaign to set the record straight.

ROME -- Imagine a delicious dinner of pasta with meat sauce and grated parmesan. Add a salad of fresh mozzarella and Roman tomatoes sprinkled with Tuscan olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Maybe you'll wash it down with some Amaretto liqueur.

But there's a catch: None of this food was actually made in Italy.

Foods that look or sound Italian but are produced elsewhere amount to $66 billion in annual sales -- nearly half the $135.5 billion worth of real Italian food that is sold worldwide in a year, says Coldiretti, Italy's farmers association.

Italian producers have launched a campaign to set the record straight in hopes of boosting their own sales.

"They might not be illegal, but they are deceptive," Coldiretti's spokesman, Paolo Falcioni, said. "It's wrong for two reasons: You take the [market] of the real food, but most importantly you're deceiving the consumer."

It's possible the fine print identifies a food as not being made in Italy, but Italian flag colors or Italian references on labels can lead rushed consumers to think otherwise, Falcioni said.

For Italians, many of whom believe they have the world's best cuisine, that's tough to swallow.

"I was in China four days ago, and in a supermarket in Shanghai I bought balsamic vinegar from Modena -- with the label written in Italian -- that was made in Germany!" Falcioni said.

Italians insist the finest balsamic vinegar is produced in the small northern Italian city of Modena, which is also home to automaker Ferrari. It's expensive: a flask the size of a perfume bottle can cost $100.

The top buyers of fake Italian food are in Australia and the United States, where a mere 2 percent of "Italian" cheeses are actually made in Italy.

Gary Litman, vice president for European affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it's too late to rename imitation Italian products that are already firmly established. "You cannot change history that easily," he said.

The problem is particularly widespread in the case of Parmesan cheese, which has spawned countless imitations worldwide.

Authentic Parmesan, called Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, is produced solely in and around the northern town of Parma. It uses unpasteurized milk with no additives and the cows are fed specific fodder.

"The presence of the Parmesan product -- especially grated -- is absolutely massive in the United States. And the production process has nothing to do with ours," said Giorgio Bocedi, a lawyer for the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese consortium.

Makers of Parmigiano Reggiano sold 112,000 tons of cheese in 2005 -- a fraction of the estimated 600,000 tons of imitations worldwide, the consortium says.

Litman said most American buyers probably don't care whether the cheese was made in Parma. "No one thinks it's coming from Parma. They don't even know where Parma is. They couldn't find it on a map."

Bocedi said part of the problem is geographic trademarks are not protected in most countries outside Europe, including the United States, with the only exceptions being wine and spirits. So anyone can use the name Parmesan, which in the U.S. is considered generic.

Litman noted U.S. law requires products to state exactly where they were produced, which the European Union does not.

But the EU has long granted protection within Europe to the names of dozens of what it terms "high quality" goods known by the region where they are produced, such as Parmesan cheese, Feta cheese and Bordeaux wine.

That is not the case everywhere, such as the United States, Australia and Canada. In the latter, for instance, Italy's famed Parma ham has to be sold under a different name because the trademark "Parma Ham" is reserved for a ham produced in Canada.

"To sell in Canada, our brand has become 'Original Prosciutto,"' said Fabrizio Raimondi, spokesman for the Parma ham cooperative.

The issue of protecting regional products is being debated at the World Trade Organization, with some nations outside Europe also keen to protect their products. India wants to protect Darjeeling tea, Sri Lanka its Ceylon tea, Guatemala its Antigua coffee, Switzerland its Etivaz cheese.

Litman said the U.S. would be open to the creation of a WTO database of products that are protected by region, but he said questions remain over how unique a product has to be and how to define its uniqueness.

Some American companies can't see what the fuss is about.

"Maybe [Italian producers] just can't fill the demand," said Frank Scala, president of the Huntington, N.Y.-based Frankie's Gravy, a 10-person business that makes pasta and pizza sauces.

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