How do we know for sure that what’s on our plate is actually what we think it is? In an era where we are more removed than ever from the origins of our food, often a label becomes our only source of information, and in it we put our blind trust.
Tricks on the Plate, a conference today at Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, explored the issue of food fraud. The scheme are many: fake organic products, use of banned ingredients, misleading place of origin, imitation of known brands… And as any complex issue, the causes and solutions are multifaceted.
The panel was joined by Tom Mueller, journalist and author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, an exposé on fraud in the olive oil industry, who talked about olive oil marketed in the US as Italian, but containing oils from outside of Italy. He described common cases of olive oil bottlers based in Italy and with Italian names, who blend and bottle olive oil from Spain or Tunisia. “The Italian government is not doing enough to protect ‘Made in Italy’ products,” he said. “It would be easy to get rid of fake Italian products, but sometimes the state collaborates with unscrupulous groups.”
Attorney Paola Gelato cited a number of cases of fraud and mislabeling in recent years, including a case of a cheese name recalling the word ‘Gorgonzola’; buffalo mozzarella made with frozen, not fresh, milk; and tomatoes from Puglia marketed as coming from San Marzano in Campania. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality is lower, but it intends to deceive consumer to believing that the product is something else. “Any advertising element that may mislead the consumer creates confusion and limits freedom of choice,” she said.
Slow Food Italy President Gaetano Pascale indicated three levels that need to work together to eliminate issues of counterfeit and fraud: producers, who have the responsibility to work with transparency and traceability; institutional bodies, which should avoid exaggerated bureaucracy and regulations which hinder the work of producers; and consumers, who must stop searching for unsustainably low prices which can create impossible circumstances for producers and force them to search for shortcuts.
“Education of consumers is crucial,” said Michele Fino from the University of Gastronomic Sciences, who chaired the discussion. “But institutions also play a part. We need to distinguish between needless bureaucracy and true efforts to protect the health of consumers.”