“Italian-Type” Food: Artful naming can fake the authenticity of food origins

by Efthalia STAIKOS

As consumers, we fight a battle every time we enter a supermarket. Do we buy or do we not buy? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Will it be tasty or disgusting? A burden is placed on us to utilize the wealth of knowledge at our disposal so that we do not make ignorant decisions. Between the internet, books, and maga­zines about every topic imaginable, we become handicapped by knowledge. We assume we can trust food companies be­cause clearly they would not trick us if it’s so easy for us to research into the truth about their products. The only problem is that this assumption makes us lazy and we do not end up doing our research. We trust that if a product says it is “Authentic Italian Tomato Sauce,” then it must be. Clearly the company would be penalized for lying. Unfortunately, this is not the case and we buy into food counterfeiting scams every day.

Brand name food companies pay more make us familiar with their name so that we have the preconceived notion that the company is more reliable when we walk into the supermarket to do our shopping. Thus, we avoid researching into their products. We don’t realize that good marketing does not necessarily en­sure a good product.

Food products that are labeled “Ital­ian” or “French” are generally trusted because both cultures’ favorable gastro­nomic identities. Tradition and reputa­tion causes most to select Italian olive oil to American. This leads us into an assumption that if a product is from a certain country it must automatically be excellent quality. Counterfeiters have started to utilize these very assumptions to their advantage. In fact, there is a word for their scheme in Italian, called “Agropi­rateria,” meaning the counterfeiting of food products by exploiting the reputa­tion and trademarks of a country.

In America, for instance, Italian food products constitute 17.7 billion dollars of the market, but of these producs only 1.5% are actually Italian-made. It might shock consumers to know that 94% of “Italian Olive Oil” is actually an imita­tion Italian product, along with 76% of canned tomatoes.

The real problem for us as we enter the battle of differentiating authentic food products from the fakes, is that the counterfeiters are well-informed of what characteristics make a product appear more legitimate. The only solution is time consuming and in depth research. This is the reason that the Accademia Italiana della Cucina has created a way to combat the 52.6 billion-dollar counter­feit industry by publishing a book called, “Il Falso in Tavola” (Giovanni Ballarini and Paolo Petroni, Accademia Italiana della Cucina, 2008).

The book pinpoints the countries that most commonly imitate products; these countries being Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Examples of the foods that can really trick us up would be a brand of ham marketed as “Parma Ham.” Definitely made in Parma Italy, right? This is actually made in the United States. Wisconsin produces “All’Asiago,” which is clearly very Italian sounding. “Tinboonzola,” cheese is an Australian product, “Parmesano,” is a product of Brazil, and “Reggiani” is a product of Ar­gentina. This illustrates what most would expect, that the markets most vulnerable to the counterfeiters are the cheese, sau­sage and olive oil markets. The counter­feit market for these three goods alone reaches a size of 8.8 billion dollars, and has approximately 300,000 employees.

Grano Padano, an authentic Italian cheese company is particularly harmed by the counterfeiting, with estimated annual damages at 200- to 300- million Euros. Clearly this poses a huge strain on Italian companies by flooding the market with inferior tasting products, with a superior price. Most consumers would choose the cheaper one. It’s not just cheese and tomato sauce that are the problem; even the symbol of Italian wine can be counterfeited, with a particularly common mix up between wine of the Chianti region and its “clone” in Napa Valley, California.

The Academy of Italian Cuisine claims that there are simple measures to combat counterfeiting. For example , cheese companies should specifiy wheth­er their cheese is regionally produced, or whether it uses milk or milk powder for production. These types of measures of authentication are only being pusher by 6 or 7 countries of the EU, with France and Italy being the most in favor. The problem is that taking on such a massive counterfeit industry would be incredibly expensive. Both the Institute for Foreign Trade (ICE) and the Chamber of Com­merce of Parma, Italy estimate that it would cost about 54 billion Euros to suf­ficiently penalize and damage the indus­try. The funds and resources needed are immense due to the rapid rate at which the counterfeit industry is growing. After all, who can blame consumers for want­ing to avoid a bit of research and trust a label that’s both cheaper and convincing? It looks as though until these measures are put in place, however, we will need to do some extra reading so that we can en­sure that we have the “real deal” on our dinner tables.