A Letter to the McItaly Burger

05 Feb 2010

The McItaly line of burgers were unveiled in late January with the help of Italy’s Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia at the McDonald’s near the Spanish steps in Rome. Zaia claims it will be a big win for Italy if the McItaly menu goes global– so much so that ads carry a governmental seal. A collective protest has unraveled, with food writer Matthew Fort of The Guardian, stating the McItaly is “monstrous act of national betrayal”. Following Zaia’s response to Fort, Slow Food President Carlo Petrini wrote the following response, published in the national Italian paper The Reppublica on February 3.

“If ever there was a sign of the moral bankruptcy of Silvio Berlusconi’s government, it is the sight of a McDonald’s apron wrapped around the svelte frame of the Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, as he helped launch the new McItaly range of burgers.”

So went the first international riposte to the attempt at “globalizing Italian taste” made by the surprising Zaia-McDonald’s coupling, from Matthew Fort of The Guardian newspaper. The official support the minister gave to the world’s most famous fast food chain for the launch of a new line made using all-Italian ingredients was described by Fort as a “monstrous act of national betrayal” worse than many of the government’s other failings, which he meticulously listed in his piece.

It’s true that the opening of the very McDonald’s in which the promotional photo of Zaia was taken, in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, led to the founding of Slow Food. But I want to be more amenable than Matthew Fort and others, to resist my skepticism and to give “McItaly” a chance.

So let’s start a debate. The campaign implies that the new hamburgers are better than the “regular” ones and that the line is part of a new strategy for the Golden Arches aimed at satisfying national tastes (to talk of “local” seems a bit much to me). Perhaps all this is in itself a small admission about the real quality of the traditional product. Maybe that’s really the case: The “McItaly” is better and more of a match to Italian tastes. A doubt remains, because the words of the slogan “Quando il gusto inconfondibile di McDonald’s incontra gli ingredienti tipici della nostra tradizione” (When the unmistakable flavor of McDonald’s meets the typical ingredients of our tradition”) ring a little strange, to say the least. But let’s not worry too much about that and move on, because I have a few questions for the key players.

First of all, McDonald’s. I’m not arguing with your marketing choices, but I would like to know if you can guarantee the quality of the ingredients whose names you’re using. I’m talking about sensory characteristics that have nothing to do with the “unmistakable flavor of McDonald’s,” characteristics that deteriorate with certain kinds of handling, transport and processing. And, more importantly, are you willing to state how much you pay the farmers and the artisans who make them? Because Italian products already have widespread circulation in the large-scale retail trade, and yet they still offer very little profitability to the producers. In fact they’ve become debased; so little is paid for them that in many cases the farmers can’t even cover their production costs, and the biggest consortia, having increased quantity and standardization to the detriment of quality and the richness of diversity, are pushed in desperation to rely on these new channels, the only ones able to absorb the excess. If the McItaly is just a new way to exploit farmers, paying them poorly, imposing further production standardizations which can only impoverish people, flavor and tradition, then this whole thing is quite a farce. All we’re asking for is a little transparency, to help us understand better. We don’t want those aggregated figures showing the total amount of money moving around, without ever knowing in whose pockets it ends up. Please tell us how much you paid for the raw materials, the cost per kilo of the individual ingredients, so that maybe we can have a better idea of the contribution you’re making to Italian agriculture.

Minister Zaia, “grateful to McDonald’s for agreeing to this great cultural operation,” declared that “this new sandwich has great ambitions, starting with the goal of moving a thousand tons of our products in one month, for a value of 3.5 million euros.” I don’t know if moving products is what our farmers were waiting for, and I would have advised the minister to be a bit more cautious before embracing a cause in which he is entrusting an important brand like Italy to a multinational which has turned marketing into its creed, the condition for its proliferation. But let’s have faith here too, and let’s talk a little about Zaia’s hope for “globalizing Italian taste” in order to “give an imprint of Italian flavors to our youngsters.”

I believe that globalizing a taste means above all standardizing it to the point of impoverishing it and making it disappear. Taste, like identity, has a value only when differences exist, because its value depends on them. In fact we can safely say that there is no such thing as Italian taste identity – whoever invented McItaly can relax – because there are hundreds, thousands of different Italian identities. They are alive and put into practice at dining tables in every region, in every province, in every town, in every house. This diversity is what has made our agriculture and food sector great in the past and what will make it great again in the future. I’m afraid that the “identity turnaround” – in Zaia’s words – which the McItaly operation will bring to Italian agriculture will be revealed to be no more and no less than an erasure of identity in favor of standardization. A standardization which will instead move towards the identity of a single, supranational brand known to everyone, with its “unmistakable taste” immediately recognizable without even having to enter a fast food restaurant, because whether in Rome or Paris, New York or Shanghai, it’s enough to stand near one. Even if they do serve the McItaly, the McGreek, the McLobster or the McHuevo. After all, the multinational pizza chains have shown us that making and selling pizza brings nothing Italian with it apart from an empty name: an affront to everyone in the country who does know how to make good pizza.

If this is the strategy for finding “the right way to appeal to millions of youngsters who go to malls,” I fear that this is a declaration of impotence, and an example of choosing the easiest and most simplistic solution to a very complex problem. I hope at least that the Agriculture Minister is not being paid to support this initiative, because when faced with the 27 euro cents paid for a liter of milk and the 6 euro cents paid for a kilo of oranges, to see a multinational pay our government to promote “Italian flavors” is worse than an insult to Italian farmers. But as we wait for replies and wonder how things will turn out (after the regional elections will we have McVenice too?), for now let’s have faith and try to avoid prejudices and legitimate suspicions.

Carlo Petrini
Slow Food President
[email protected]

First published in Italian in The Repubblica on February 3.

Click here to read Matthew Fort’s article in The Guardian, published on January 28.

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