When is “Italian Know-How” authentic, or even Italian? by Richard McCarthy

Written by Richard McCarthy

The Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City is a beautiful thing. For some, it is a pilgrimage for foodies. For many more, this B2B (business to business) trade show highlights trends in consumer behaviour as well as gaps in consumer knowledge. No issue proves this second point better during the 2024 edition than the contrast between Campagna Amica’s deployment of rockstar cheese makers and agri-chefs to the Union Square Greenmarket and the growing concerns about Italian powerhouse Barilla. Its packaging declares that it is “Italy’s Number One Brand of Pasta.” Indeed, it is. With an 80 percent market share in Italy, Barilla is a powerhouse. However, a 2022 class action lawsuit on behalf of consumers against Barilla for its deceptive advertising raises important questions for consumers who seek truth in advertising. On 28 May 2024, Northern California Chief Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu certified the class of consumers for the suit. With rapid expansion, the privately-held multinational corporation trades on its reputation as Italian, but is it? 

During the 2024 Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City, Italy served up its A-team to promote the people and products of Italy. Among them is Coldiretti. It is Italy’s largest farmers’ union, Coldiretti brought a team of farmers, agri-chefs, and business development leaders, including its very own, Campagna Amica. Loosely translated as “friendship with the countryside,” Campagna Amica is the managing entity that runs 1,200 farmers markets, provides support to more than 3,000 agritourism farms, and more than 1,000 social farms. Founded in 2008 in order to promote the multifunctional agriculture model, Campagna Amica is the most frequent interface between Italy’s farmers and consumers. 

Campagna Amica leaders descended upon the flagship Union Square Greenmarket on Monday, 24 June 2024, in order to fulfil its Sister Market relationship developed via the World Farmers Markets Coalition inaugural General Assembly, and to communicate to New York market shoppers how the magical combination of authentic Italian ingredients with fresh local New York  produce delivers both health and happiness.  

On the Monday, the farmers market became a “who’s who” of Manhattan Italian food leaders, restaurateurs and importers; and Italian agricultural leaders, like Coldiretti President, Ettore Prandini and Campagna Amica Director Carmelo Troccoli. An effective lobbying force, Coldiretti led the campaign that led to the Italian Government’s decision to ban the development and sale of the most hyper-processed of hyper-processed foods — synthetic meats. Also present were farmers market and public health practitioners from the region, like Philadelphia’s Food Trust. 

Usually the slowest day in Greenmarket’s four weekly market days at Union Square, this Monday morning was hot and happening. Italian warmth and conviviality appears to have spilled over to an otherwise stoic, albeit determined community of shoppers who hunt for seasonal products at Union Square. Motivated to share the fruits of the Italian farmers’ knowledge and labour with the public, the event’s rockstar attraction was cheesemaker Mimmo La Vecchia. He made fresh Mozzarella on site using water buffalo milk from his home region of Campania. Joined by Italian agri-chefs, La Vecchia demonstrated both technique and values behind the production of the cheese in Italy’s famed water buffalo Campania. Waving his large wooden spoon to the crowd, he explained, “while it may be possible to make Mozzarella using other kinds of cow’s milk, with flavour and richness that water buffalos provide, why would you?” 

As is to be expected, New Yorkers are not easily convinced. There were many questions. In particular, the sourcing of ingredients took centre stage. The quest for transparency and passion cuts to the heart of the Sister Market event specifically and to the core principles at play in Italian agriculture’s major rethink, codified by the 2001 Modernisation of Agriculture Law. Pressured to seek efficiencies and scale in the world marketplace, Italian products have been rocked by its fair share of scandals: Think of the 1986 methanol in wine crisis that almost destroyed its now-robust Piedmont wine industry. Or, consider the occasional olive oil scandals. 

In response to these pressures to compete, Italian agriculture returned to the drawing board in 2001, redefined the purpose and practise of agriculture as activities on the land that supports family employment and wealth generation. With these financial pressures in mind, La Vecchia’s remarks about how and why farmers opt for less productive yet more flavourful milk sources for Mozzarella speaks volumes. For Campagna Amica, “quality is more important than quantity.”  Jeopardise the reputations of Italy’s traditional agri-foods, and all is lost. This is why the Greenmarket served as the ideal platform to engage with consumers about the popular levers in place that keep Italian food grounded: valuing flavour. After all, this is the American farmers market renaissance’s contribution to the national debate about food and quality. 

Home to fresh water buffalo mozzarella, Campania is not a large region. It does not even make Italy’s top ten list of regional land masses. Nor is it the only region to manufacture buffalo mozzarella; however, it may produce the best. The story of Italian food is (or should be) the story of food elsewhere in the world: The combination of technique and territory differentiate one place’s flavour from another. 

In his cheese operation, il Casolare, La Vecchia has to contend with the very real constraint that water buffalo do not produce milk in as great a volume as other cattle breeds. If this is so, why use water buffalo? The short answer is richness and flavour in the end product. Just ask La Vecchia and the greenmarket shoppers, lucky enough to be there on the day to sample his mozzarella cheese served with local farmers’ tomatoes, basil, and fresh greens. One lucky recipient of a plate of mozzarella remarked,“It’s the taste.” 

Whereas industrial agriculture experts may suggest that a preferable solution would be to pump up production via bovine growth hormone stimulants, La Vecchia instead provides the water buffalo with a calm and nutritious environment to be productive. Methods throughout the region include the broadcast of classical and soothing jazz music on loudspeakers, and self-directed washing and massage stations. Contrary to the furtive attitude among Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs) in the United States to keep operations away from public view, Italy’s water buffalo farms are open to the public. They want the public to understand why water buffalo mozzarella may cost more. If prices are low, it means corners are cut. Corners include human and animal welfare, natural inputs, and quality. While this is a tough message to sell during tough times, it is honest. 

Shoppers were elated to be given the opportunity to sample – and a healthy sample at that – of Italian cheeses (with their peculiar minerality in flavour thanks to the water and land that feeds the cattle) together with June 2024’s surprisingly early crop of fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs and greens, old-grain breads, and topped with Italian extra-virgin olive oil. Shoppers stuck around for the generous offering of free food, but also to soak up knowledge. After all, Union Square boasts its own fresh water buffalo mozzarella maker in its roster of farmers. For the first time, many were able to field test precisely how the terroir of New York differs from Campania. These conversations equipped shoppers with new knowledge to act upon their agency as active consumers. 

Union Square may be only one of 50 of GrowNYC’s weekly Greenmarket locations in New York City, but it is the flagship. This is where biodiversity has resurfaced as an economically-viable selling point. Think of ramps, heirloom grains, and fiddlehead ferns. These products lept from marginal to desirable rapidly due to the integrity of farmers who brought varieties from near-extinction and marginalisation and into the imagination and appetite of many New York eaters. 

It is with this in mind that the question of Barilla became the surprise story of the morning. For farmers market consumers, many are motivated to eat seasonally when possible with ingredients that are sourced locally. The relocalization of foods has accompanied and perhaps also serves as a determined response to a growing consolidation for the foods that feed families. At one point, it was enough to recognise a brand. Today, consumers look for the brand and then have to read the small print to determine who actually now owns their beloved brand. 

In most cases, it is only a handful of giants who own, manufacture, and market the provisions that fill most larders. One dozen giants own an 80 percent share of the global market: PepsiCo, Nestle, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Mars, Danone, General Mills, Kraft, Mondelez, and Hormel. 

While Barilla may be no Nestle, it is big business. A privately held family behemoth, Barilla is present in more than 100 countries, including and especially the United States.  As stated earlier, in Italy, 80 percent of pasta purchases are theirs. Spend a week in Italy, and it is difficult to avoid its powerful marketing weight. Billboards, television, and radio advertisements remind Italians that Barilla is the curator of traditional family meals. This claim has also landed the company in hot water. In 2013, company chairman Mr. Barilla declared in a radio interview that the company would never feature gay families in its promotional campaigns. News spread quickly, with social media calls for boycotting Barilla foods for its homophobia. Since that moment, the company has made strides to embrace gay consumers.  

While this controversy did not help the brand spread its recognition worldwide, the company has nevertheless succeeded to become a dominant player outside of Italy. Barilla’s association with Italy, the Italian flag, and containing Italian ingredients gives their navy blue boxes of dried pasta considerable advantage on supermarket shelves. In addition, its foundation has helped to convey its image as a good corporate citizen by supporting food systems work throughout the world.  

So, when a farmers market shopper asked the Mozzarella rockstar, La Vecchia, “Which pasta should I purchase?”, it caused quite a stir at the conclusion of the event. Before La Vecchia had an opportunity to explain that there is no simple answer, someone from the crowd shouted, “Barilla, right?” Several shoppers agreed with nodding heads and utterances that Italian durum wheat is so desirable. This common understanding about Barilla’s role as a major exporter of Italian pasta runs counter to the business model now being pursued in America and beyond. Barilla’s US operations are based in Chicago, IL, with manufacturing facilities in Iowa and New York. 

The trouble with this equation is that consumers are dazzled by Barilla as an authority about and defender of Italian traditional food, whilst purchasing navy blue boxes of Barilla spaghetti and other dried products manufactured in the USA with ingredients that come, not from Italy, but from the USA. The very fact that discerning farmers markets shoppers are fooled by this switch and bait should be cause for concern. These are the vanguard shoppers who lead trends, ask tough questions of farmers about growing practices and authenticity of sourcing. If they are misled, then imagine how many others purchase Barilla products assuming that they are purchasing “Italy’s Number One Brand of Pasta,” only to discover that they are purchasing American pasta, made with American (and perhaps other) grains and water. With American production comes American efficiency, and corners cut to yield lower costs. One of these corners is especially important to consumers who use the “Made in Italy” indicator as a proxy for products free of Genetically Modified Organisms in purchasing choices. 

The result is disturbing. Italy’s most important pasta maker has found a furtive strategy to trade on Italy’s commitment to traditional foods, biodiversity, and authenticity, without actually remaining committed to these practices in its international business model. Never mind that there is a growing chorus of nutritionists and chefs, concerned about the high drying temperatures used in the production of industrial pasta, and their effect upon human abilities to digest properly. Or, never mind that US consumers mistakenly purchase boxes of pasta made with Genetically Modified Organisms cultivated with glyphosate chemicals. 

With sisterhood between farmers and farmers markets in Rome and New York providing the backdrop to very serious conversations about farming practices, business integrity, and social trust, GrowNYC’s Greenmarket demonstrated not only that some of the more grounded Fancy Food Show conversations take place offsite of the Javits Center, but also that with more than 6,000 years of operations, farmers markets continue to be more than just the places where supply meets demand. Rather, they are places where ideas flourish, knowledge is shared, and trust is restored. 

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