Where does our milk come from?

Italy has approved a new law that makes indication of origin labeling obligatory for dairy products. The law will come into force on April 19th 2017 and will be applied to all forms of animal milk, including cow, sheep and goat. milk

Beyond milk, the geographical origin of the milk used in other dairy products will also be labeled, for products like UHT milk, butter, yogurt and cheese and other dairy products. “There is no doubt that this is a step forward, even if, like many other provisions of the EU, it takes for granted that there is a correspondence between territorial divisions and political ones. It indicates only the country, or simply if the country is inside or outside the EU, nothing close to our idea of the narrative label that lets us see the territory, the breed or the diet of the animal”, comments Piero Sardo, president of Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. “It helps protectionism, and aims to increase consumption of Italian products, giving less appeal to dairy products that come from abroad. This would give Italian products some sort of guarantee, in theory, and therefore justify higher prices for them. I actually hope that there is an increase in price for milk that is produced well, and I hope that the consumer will understand the price change, since market segmentation shows a high sensibility to this product, and I hope consumers understand why different products are priced differently, according to their production methods.”

Italy, like France, which recently instated a similar law, has a trade balance deficit, and imports more than 2 million tons of milk every year (data from Istat, Agea 2014). It is inevitable that our country imports milk but the required indications of the new law, in our opinion, are insufficient.

Milk is not a homogenous product; it has an enormous variety, which is not simply limited to which species of animal it comes from, but also the breed. “A white Modenese cow and a Podolica produce milk with diverse characteristics, just as there can be no comparison between a cow that grazes on herbs and flowers in Valle d’Aosta and another cow, of the same breed, raised in a stall and fed with silage. So of course a simple statement of the milk’s geographic origin, which covers all European countries from Spain to Hungary, or the entire world cannot be satisfactory,” says Sardo.

Here is what you will find on dairy labels from 19th of April:

  1. “Country of milking: name of the country that the milk comes from.”
  2. “Country of processing and transformation: name of the country where the product was processed or transformed from milk.”

If the milk, or milk used as ingredient in dairy products, was obtained, processed and transformed all in the same country, the indication of origin may contain a single statement (e. g. “Origin of Milk: Italy”).

If the phases of packaging and transformation occur in more than one country, other than Italy, the label will read thus:

  • “Milk from the European Union”: if the milk is from in one or more European countries
  • “Milk processed in the European Union”: if the product has been processed or transformed in the EU.

If any part of the processing occurs outside the EU, the label “Non-EU country” will be used. Products with DOP and IGP labels are excluded from this act since their regulations for fresh milk are already traceable.

The bigger problem that labels can’t solve, however, regard semi-processed products which are currently used in products sold as “Made in Italy” in order to satisfy consumer demand, such as foreign frozen curd which is used to produce mozzarella (the non-DOP variety, i.e. not buffalo mozzarella). From April onwards, we will be able to see if this is the case on store-bought mozzarella: but what if we eat it on pizza? Obviously the most virtuous producers will clearly indicate the country of origin and processing on the packaging, and not just tell us it comes from a generic “EU country”.

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