The custodians of Italian food diversity were gathered for an enjoyable three days in Sicily last weekend for a special assembly of Italian Presidia. It wasn’t really a celebration but rather an opportunity to discuss and examine issues with others who share the belief that small-scale artisanal products at risk of extinction can be saved, and have dedicated their working lives to doing something about it.
It is more than twenty years since the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) system was introduced and it is becoming evident that we need to reconsider the best way of safeguarding top quality food products. The registered designation system aimed to create a strong regulatory framework across the EU which would, on the one hand protect traditional local products from falsification or imitation, and on the other hand would promote these products among consumers.
Italian producers reacted enthusiastically to the legislation and Italy is now the country with the highest number of recognized products and many others on the waiting list. Setting up the PDO and PGI system was an important and timely decision, but there are many problems needing to be solved. Small producers are still finding it difficult to achieve market recognition and are finding that the costs of complying with the regulations are much higher than expected.
Obviously the big names like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, Prosciutto di Parma and Asiago — all designations with efficient producer associations and sound economic fundamentals —found it relatively easy to adjust to the new requirements. But small-scale products which were swept along in the wave of enthusiasm, applying for and receiving PDO or PGI status, have found things rather more complicated. Producer associations for PDO cheeses such as Murazzano, Castelamagno or Ragusano, or PGI products such as Genzano bread or Piedmontese hazelnuts — just to give a few examples — are struggling to cover their costs. Many members end up abandoning the brand designation in order to save on these expenses and maybe also because they are fed up with or unused to the checks required.
Given this situation you have to wonder what will happen to all those small-scale products registered by regional authorities, now totaling over 4000. They are high quality traditional local products which risk never being able to gain European recognition. Will they have to trust their destiny to some enterprising businessperson who will, more or less legally, register their name? Or will they use a collective brand name that has no status outside Europe? Or just resign themselves to disappearing, victims of a globalized market where only the strongest and most organized can survive?
Slow Food does not accept that we have to lose this extraordinary asset and is now finding allies among large institutions, aware retailers and discerning consumers. Nobody is resigning themselves to a disastrous scenario, even though the Italian production system as a whole has been suffering huge problems due to international competition. We need an imaginative effort to safeguard these small specialty products, some of them only surviving with one or two producers, a few hectares of cultivation or a few thousand animals. They are products now living at the margins of the commercial mainstream, but they could grow and attract some entrepreneur ready to engage in food biopiracy.
The first step is to strengthen the system of traceability, giving regional authorities the job of creating and organizing a suitable system for the purpose. As a second step it would be necessary to see whether existing legislation is able to safeguard the over 4000 traditional products that the regional authorities, in accordance with EU regulations, have identified. These products are an enormous asset and not giving them the recognition they deserve would be criminally negligent.
It will not be easy dealing with the challenge, we are sailing in rough waters and there are many obstacles to overcome before food biodiversity can find a safe haven. We are reassured by the success achieved in just a few years with the Presidium project and can take heart from the resolution of all the people who came to Sicily, determined to meet the challenge.
First published in La Stampa on May 16 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards