I don’t want to sound apocalyptic but …

At this time of the year, it’s almost natural to take stock of the past twelve months. Looking back at what has happened in the agribusiness sector in the course of 2001, any considerations are likely to be somewhat on the gloomy side. A brief review of the events of this freezing cold December alone is ghastly enough in itself.

Reading the papers every morning, I register constant signals that the much hoped for turnaround in the agricultural sector is still a long way off, that laws, political decisions and resource deployment are on the wrong track and that, in order to fend off small-scale producers, the food industry is becoming increasingly aggressive.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to finding ways of reacting and coming up with plausible solutions. For a kick-off, the European Community continues to be as pro big business as ever. The latest case in point involves Italy and Spain, which have been pilloried for defending the purity of chocolate. The Advocate General of the EU Court of Justice Siegbert Albert asked the judges to censure the two Mediterranean nations ‘since, in banning the sale of products containing vegetable fats other than cocoa butter under the denomination “chocolate”, they hinder the free circulation of goods within the Union’. Here in Italy and in Spain, the labels of the products I mentioned defined them as ‘chocolate surrogates’ because that’s what they are. But that was a nuisance for some (guess who?) and Herr Monsieur Herr Albert was urged to come up with the above verdict. Well done. This is the umpteenth case of inadequacy and insensitivity on the part the European Union. At this point, it seems clear to me that the upper echelons in Brussels are guided by ‘hands’ with fingers in the pie!

Who knows why, but one’s thoughts go immediately to the big food companies; the multinationals, which I increasingly prefer to refer to as the ‘supranationals’. It is they who weigh heaviest on the outcome of the year. McDonald’s has announces that it is going to build a 50,000 square meter factory in Frigento, in the province of Avellino, to launch a new product in its fast food outlets – the pizza. Hang on a moment! What about the cultural and gastronomic significance of the true Neapolitan pizza? Isn’t that supposed to be protected? Talking about supranationals, I want to know how come, as lab analyses prove, it’s possible to eat GMOs here in Piedmont. The results of the analyses, conducted from December 2000 to September 2001 on a sample of 257products on sale in the region are flabbergasting: 53 (20.6%) resulted positive, and 10 exceeded the minimum 1% threshold that the European Union wants to make legal. Just think: testing positive were 25% of corn flour samples, 25% of corn flakes and snacks, 15.5 % of organic produce, 13.3 % of baby food, 18% of products declared ‘OGM-free’ (sic!), 75% of foodstuffs imported from outside Europe and 66% of animal feeds. This is a way of taking advantage of consumers, who have a right to know what they are eating. It is the result of wrong information, a couldn’t-care-less attitude, and the carelessness of producers who fail to check the origin of raw materials, as they ought to.

Not that consumers themselves do much to revive good, wholesome eating habits. The boom in frozen and precooked foods is the clearest symptom of the ongoing trend. The pace of life is increasing and families are developing new habits dictated by job requirements and advertising propaganda. We Italians are the people who still go home for lunch and a siesta (ISTAT, the Italian Statistics Institute, docet), but we are filling our plates with readymade sauces, whole courses to heat up a few minutes in the pan and sliced bread.
I don’t want to sound apocalyptic – traditional products are gradually improving and knowledge is spreading about their production processes and goodness – but at this rate it’s hard to be jolly in front of the traditional Christmas panettone (the quality of which, incidentally, seems to be on the way down too).

Carlo Petrini

First published in La Stampa 12/16/01

(adapted by Anya Fernald)

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