Italy cracks down on parmesan as it moves to reclaim its cheese

ROME • The investigators say they have a duty to defend Italy's national interests, and so they spend their days in a discreetly marked government office, scanning the Internet for dubious activity, trying to thwart one threat after the next.

They are on the lookout for fake cheese.

"This looks like the fishiest thing ever," one of the food investigators, Mr Domenico Vona, said this month after some Internet sleuthing led him to an "Italian parmesan" made in Ukraine.

"This is blatant," he said as he filed a complaint to online marketplace Alibaba, where the hunks of deep yellow vacuum-packed cheese are being sold. "This is definitely not parmigiano."

If Italy had its way, there would be no such thing as Ukrainian parmesan. Or American parmesan. In fact, there would be no generic parmesan whatsoever - only parmigiano reggiano, produced inside a small patch of Italian countryside, under exacting specifications, at one of 330 dairies whose cheese wheels are tested with percussion hammers and then branded with markings of authenticity if they pass muster.

Italy is doing what it can to reclaim its signature cheese, as well as other mimicked food and alcohol products, in a campaign combining old food traditions and some new nationalistic sentiment.

In Brussels, Italian diplomats are pressing the European Union to protect Italian foods in trade deals being negotiated with other nations. In Rome, the government team of self-described food cops is signing agreements with online marketplaces to crack down on the Internet sale of faux Italian wines, sausages, cheeses, among others. And the country's populist leaders - with their "Italians first" slogans - are bashing "Made in Italy" food knock-offs while extolling the greatness of Italian cuisine.

"I want a tricolour flag - big like this - on Italian products," said Italy's most powerful politician, far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini, who regularly touts his all-Italian diet on social media.

Within the European Union, foods and wines linked historically to a particular region are categorised as "geographical origin" products. And they are fiercely protected inside of the bloc.

Parmigiano reggiano cheese, generically known as parmesan outside Italy, is made only in a small area within Italy. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST


The sale of generic parmesan, for instance, is banned in Europe. Other foods with European protection include asiago, roquefort, morbier, the ham called prosciutto di parma, and grana padano, a parmigiano cousin. When hashing out trade deals, Europe has tried to press other countries to apply a version of those protections.

But in the many places where European rules do not apply, parmesan has become the perfect emblem for the debate over whether a nationally significant food can and should be appropriated, and even tweaked, by foreigners.

Parmigiano reggiano is trademarked in the United States and most other countries, and the term cannot be used for non-Italian cheese. With parmesan, though, producers have nothing stopping them.

"While (our parmesan) is not exactly the same, it's very similar," said Mr Jeff Schwager, the president of Sartori, an artisanal Wisconsin-based company founded in 1939 by Italian immigrants. "We intentionally produce ours where the cheese is a little creamier."

Italians say their defence of parmigiano is rooted in a mix of good taste, economics and sense that they are upholding culinary commandments. The consortium that regulates domestic parmigiano production estimates Italy is losing billions of euros because of "counterfeits".

Parmigiano reggiano is produced in a flat northern strip of provinces that gave the cheese its name: One of the provinces is Parma; another is Reggio. Beyond the approved zone for parmigiano-making - an area that includes five provinces, bounded by two rivers - the cheese cannot be made.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2019, with the headline 'Italy cracks down on parmesan as it moves to reclaim its cheese'. Print Edition | Subscribe