Ladies and Gentlemen,
in the first part of my speech I shall attempt to follow the order of questions sent to me.
The objective of fine quality farm food production can and must be protected and pursued within the European Union.
While the concept of quality usually means corresponding to certain expectations, in the farm food sector it must be understood from a threefold point of view:
a)health and hygiene safety (a minimum level to be guaranteed in all cases);
It is true that producers are usually exposed to contradictory motivations, because healthy foods that respect the environment often involve an increase in production costs. The problem thus arises of the producer’s compensation, which enables him to adapt to consumer expectations.
My association, Slow Food, was founded in Italy in 1987 and became an international movement in 1989; today it is extensively represented in all member nations of the European Union. Slow Food has launched a number of important projects in recent years, first and foremost the Ark of Taste.
The supposition is that in Italy and the rest of Europe there are still an enormous and varied number of traditional products of impeccable quality that often risk extinction.
Sometimes the immediate cause of the problem is commercial competition, but it may be also be due to EU regulations, which apply the same rules to small-scale producers and the large-scale food industry. These regulations are often justified by quoting the data surrounding food-poisoning, neglecting the fact that the vast majority of cases is due to the consumers’ individual circumstances rather than production problems (mushrooms picked without correct identification, incorrectly stored eggs and other foods, etc).
Strictly local micro-organisms cause organoleptic differences between products, from cheeses to cured meats (on this subject, we hope that no-one else will decide to suggest the prohibition of raw milk cheese production, against which we collected tens of thousands of signatures in and outside Europe). Excessive hygiene regulations would make everything neutral and quality would depend solely on the addition of “natural flavors”.
We are pleased to record the progress achieved in drawing up the Food Safety Regulation which makes specific mention of quality and biodiversity, overcoming purely hygienic and sanitary regulations.
But let us return to the Ark. For this project, we identified a series of traditional products threatened with extinction, studied them, established their basic characteristics, catalogued them and welcomed them onto what we metaphorically call the Ark of Taste, thus creating a list.
The next stage was to create the Taste Presidia: identifying products (about one hundred so far) around which we have created a new network leading to the final consumer. These were first presented to the public at the Hall of Taste in Turin (October 25-29 2000), where over 100,000 visitors were able to taste them. The procedure continued in this way: the right price was agreed, making it viable for the producer to continue working, a magazine was published, and over 30,000 copies printed, each issue of which examined one of the Presidia products and contained purchase vouchers. I can now say that this project has completely – and understandably – changed the lives of those involved so far with orders, consumer visits, requests for news and interviews with local and international journalists.
This type of project is clearly limited, so the direct subsidy to farmers’ income in the revision of the EU Agricultural Policy was very welcome: it is no longer connected to the quantity of the product and is now based on a “cultivation-breeding contract” which guarantees quality, diversity, safety, respect for the environment and the well-being of the animals.
These projects are obviously expensive and so far have gone ahead thanks to local private and public sponsorship. Communication and education of taste should be supported at EU level.
Taste education is another theme to which Slow Food is deeply committed.
The basic precept is that in Italy, for example, about 12% of our income is spent on food, which is considerably less than it was a few decades ago. Our opinion is that it is possible to divert some of the other costs towards quality food products, providing information and creating awareness. To this end, we are launching hundreds of Master of Food courses throughout the Italy, each one of them designed for about 30 people, on a range of food-related themes: wine, cheeses, olive oil, fish, vegetables etc.
We believe that within a few years we will obtain the same results as we have already achieved in the wine sector with the publication of our Italian Wines guide (Slow Food and Gambero Rosso), which is now also available in German and English and has promoted and fostered a change in attitude on the part of the consumers. Ie, drink less, drink better. The objective in the food sector is to direct the consumer once again towards good quality, and hence towards the rediscovery of production traditions area by area (without of course excluding sensory experiences from other parts of the world) and reasserting the use of products in season, reviving traditional recipes, and so on.
With regard to the relationship between food quality and public health, we are siding with germs. We believe that the basic health guideline must be statistical and epidemiological. In other words, if a product is made according to traditional processes, we have to find out whether it has ever been the cause of health problems. If not, it is difficult to see why a series of hygiene regulations must be applied, which will involve a financial contribution that is hard to sustain and may force the producer to abandon his activity.
Our requirements for all food products are:
• that the product’s origin can be traced (company, real production area, not packaging location);
• that its ingredients are listed;
• that any genetically modified ingredients are clearly stated.
We therefore require full respect of the EU Directive 2001/18, which states that foods containing genetically modified ingredients unauthorized by the EU cannot be sold in the EU. We do not believe that any percentage, however low, is acceptable.
Lastly, as Third World countries are enormously rich in typical farm food products, we believe that concrete help for those nations can also be offered by creating Presidia of Taste for products which might be successfully promoted by exporting to the EU in conformity with European regulations.
Vice-president of Slow Food